Some time back I had the opportunity to meet up and photograph Kate & Ellen, from Birch & Pine. Kate had actually requested a local pickup of a Mama Bird tee given the fact that they had been living on the road and did not have a shipping address. What started as a shirt drop off turned into a tour of their home-on-wheels, some photos down at the beach, followed by some hang time between their daughter Adeleide and the boys the next day, and then, well, an entire Sunday watching football and cooking food and folding laundry. Never mind the latter, it’s better folding laundry with new friends, let me tell ya. We had a great time exchanging life stories and comparing romantic presumptuous notions about one another’s lives. When they pulled away in their airstream the next morning, Willy and I were both a bit sad (it’s been a long time since he’s had an entire day dedicated to watching football with someone who actually enjoys it). They made promises of return visits and have already made good on their word. I suppose it’s our turn to visit them next. It’s not everyday that you meet new friends that instantly feel like old friends. In any event, I thought I’d interview them here so ya’ll could have the pleasure of knowing a bit about them too.
I suppose it’s best to start out with an introduction. Tell us a little bit about yourselves, what you’re doing, and something unique about each of you.
We are Kate (a photographer, writer, and stylist) and Ellen (an art teacher turned woodworker) – wives (to each other, sometimes people don’t catch that one), and mamas to a beautiful and brilliant daughter, Adelaide. We are currently in month five of a road trip around North America, and live in our renovated 1957 Airstream, on a search for a place to call home and an understanding of who we are creatively and personally.
Let’s see, something unique…I (Kate) went most of my life without understanding the beauty of bluegrass music…until moving to Kentucky to live with Ellen. Now I can’t imagine my life without it! Ellen can make just about anything she puts her mind to making…she’s a natural problem-solver and this comes into play when she is creating.
I always say that I prefer travel over vacation and that traveling is synonymous with some degree of difficulty. Vacation is a break in the action but when you return, you jump right back into the action. Traveling is far from a break, and often more difficult than regular life – albeit a beautiful change in scenery – but you often return with a perspective and knowledge and outlook that far exceeds the length of the actual trip. Would you agree?
We would both absolutely agree, one-thousand percent. We weren’t quite prepared for how difficult living on the road would be. The lack of comforts were one thing, but we didn’t know it would affect our marriage so negatively (goodbye date nights, adult conversation, and sex), how little we’d actually get to explore (we’re too busy homeschooling, working to generate income, or setting up and tearing down our house when we get to a location or leave one), or how our emotions could vary from day to day – one day I’ll love every second of traveling and think…I could do this forever…and the next day I’m collapsing on a curb because I’m so overwhelmed by it all.
Yet there are moments that make it all worth it, despite the hard days or circumstances – like meeting new people we’d not have otherwise met, seeing glaciers for the first time up close, when the right song comes on while driving down the road and the temperature is just right. And while we’re not clear on how we’ll feel and what we will have learned when our travels are over and we return to ‘normalcy’, we can definitely say, even now, that we’ve figured out some really vital things about ourselves and our future that we wouldn’t have discovered without this trip.
You travel with a dog and a cat, which I assume many would see as an added challenge. Do you think you could travel with a fish or would you draw the line there?
The line is already drawn at the dog and cat! I knew that I (Kate) would really struggle with having two pets with us on the road, but the fact is: we love them and are responsible for their care, no matter where we are or what we decide to do in life. It’s definitely hard to manage sometimes, but they bring such warmth and love into our lives and our home. It’s just like the travel itself – it’s hard to have them with us, but they make it worth it when they cuddle up with us after a hard day.
Downsizing from a larger home to a smaller one is never a walk in the park. It’s even harder to fathom how to downsize to a 27 foot trailer. You’ve sold or donated many of your possessions, which I think all of us – no matter the size of our living corridors – intend to do. Did you follow any rules as far as getting rid of stuff was involved? Was it difficult or freeing? Is there anything that you got rid of that you regret?
Go with your gut. Don’t hem and haw over every single item you sort through…your first instinct is usually the right one. If you know you’ve not worn that tank top all summer and it’s now autumn, you’re likely not going to wear it next summer. It’s pretty easy to get matter-of-fact about it if you don’t let yourself get to the doubting stage (like having an outbox by the back door – that’s just setting you up for keeping the contents).
For us, it was freeing. It’s pretty fun to know that everything we own can be hauled down the highway. At this point, we don’t regret it. It’s really amazing to get a completely fresh start. Sometimes I miss this broken brass lamp I picked up at a flea market for $2…I sold it for $10, and it’s one of the things I wish I’d saved. A broken, cheap brass lamp of all things…
Life on the road is much like life anywhere in the sense that it’s always going to have it’s highs and it’s lows. Can you take a minute to paint the picture of what a great day of life on the road looks like and then what a I-can’t-wait-to-settle-down-because-life-on-the-road-is-hard day on the road looks like?
Good day: We wake slowly in some incredible location…perhaps the rocky beach surrounded by waterfalls and glaciers in Alaska, or underneath the moss covered trees of the Hoh Rainforest…or that morning in the Badlands, watching the sunrise and a thunderstorm take place simultaneously, crazily, across the ridiculously vast sky. Coffee together, savoring it, conversation, a child playing at our feet. A hike, a day of exploration. A picnic lunch…songs on the radio as we drive. A dinner over the campfire, beers and singing and playing the guitar together.
*These have rarely happened all in one day – these are merely snippets of time and rare moments for us.
Bad day: I’m melting, purely melting in the heat…and shade and a breeze aren’t found. We’re out of coffee…I walk around to get something out of the car and smack my forehead into one of the open Airstream windows, knocking me to the dirt and I start bleeding profusely. The dog shits in the bathroom and someone steps in it…then the cat vomits on the rug…and someone steps in it. The dinner gets burnt, there isn’t wifi or cell signal and I’m behind on work. We’re driving somewhere and hoping to find a campsite…and keep on driving, because every single one we stop at is full. Throw a few fits in there, the good and strong kind, where your kid is having a full-on breakdown, complete with hysterical crying, yelling, and gets a few blows to your face in. We stop on the side of the road and hope we don’t get a ticket or hit in the middle of the night…and get a restless night of sleep, especially when the cat has eaten something weird – one of my plants, of course, and pukes again…and then takes a shit and fills the tiny trailer with a smell that would rouse the deepest sleeper.
*This has all happened in one day.
You’ve met many people on the road. I often feel that in general we’re all very disconnected, that we lack a human connection. But life on the road kind of sets you up to meet a lot of strangers and engage in a lot of conversations. I assume you’ve had to rely on others, at times, which I think can be a very beautiful and connecting experience. Has it been hard to meet people and then move on or are you simply grateful for the people you’ve come in contact with?
We set out to find community on this trip, something that we really lacked back in Kentucky…and we’ve definitely found it. I am so amazed by how deeply we can connect with others when they are open to it…I’m not a shoot-the-shit kind of person. I’m going to get in there and pry and ask you how you really are. We both desire real conversation, to linger over a messy dinner table because no one dares to rise and start cleaning up…the things happening at the table are too good. We’ve found this, from Ontario to Portland to California to Alaska. It’s all been so good, and each friendship forged looks different. Some people we keep in touch with more than others, some we feel entirely comfortable with right away, some it takes a bit more time to get to know. Some relationships have just been pure fun – drinking and talking and being silly…and each friendship is amazing in it’s own right. It’s definitely difficult to move on, especially when you have such a real and vital connection.
Our reliance on others has been hard for us, as we both take pride in our independence. We love that we renovated our Airstream ourselves entirely, that we prepared for this life without support from our families or anyone else – it was just us. We were all we had. In that way, it’s difficult to understand that there are people willing to support who we are and what we do, to accept our family as normal, all of it. Yet we’ve needed that so badly – it has moved us to tears when someone offers us a meal, a bedroom to spread out in, time alone as a couple, a shower, or leaves a bottle of wine, gift cards, and the sweetest message in a grocery bag under my seat in the car (looking at you, Ashley!), or simply speaks to us like we are normal – asks us for parenting advice, asks when we got married, celebrates us as a real couple and a real family, because we are. None of this was had before, and we have that now. We found what we were looking for in so many folks, all across the continent.
You’re without many simple luxuries living the way you are. I figure you must either fall into the who-needed-that-stuff-anyway category or the I-can’t-wait-to-take-a-shit-in-a-bathroom-with-a-door category. Which do you each fall into? What has been surprisingly easy to do without? What has been difficult?
You know, I think that I fall somewhere in between – and so does my wife. We don’t regret what we did – we didn’t need all of that stuff that filled our house. We don’t miss it, and having everything we own following sort of dutifully behind us as we travel is really amazing to us. Letting go of all of those things gave us the gift of understanding what we truly need. We wouldn’t have known that otherwise. On the flip side, we’ve realized that we are people who don’t do living this simply all that well. We like ice-makers, and washers and dryers, and having a private bedroom with a door, and a flushing toilet (we compost in the Airstream). At first, I felt really guilty about missing those things…but I’m not sure why. I think it’s okay to want comfort – but yet knowing that for five months so far, I’ve gone without anyway, despite the discomfort, gives me a sense of accomplishment. I am able to push through difficult situations and live with less, but I’m looking forward to the day when we settle down again and have some luxuries…yet we plan to continue living with less, mindfully consuming, and purchasing products with intention.
I traveled a lot in my mid-twenties and encountered a lot of friends and family that were astonished that I had “that kind of money”. The reality is that my best friend and I worked really hard, saved all of our money, and traveled very cheaply. In India, for example, we paid $2 for the room we stayed in. It had bed bugs in it, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, I think a lot of people look at your lifestyle and discount it as an option because it’s something they feel they cannot afford. Can you touch on how you’ve made it work and how you’ve opted to do without to keep it sustainable?
You’ve hit on something here – people do assume you have to be ridiculously wealthy or something close to it to travel. For us, it was about wanting it more than anything and working our asses off to make it happen. From concept to culmination, it took a year and a half to even get on the road. During that time, we gave up weekends, weeknights – we renovated our Airstream completely (everything new, from the subfloor to the electrical to the design and execution), went through the excrutiating process of selling our house, lost sleep, lost all free time, and I took some pretty weird freelance jobs to save up for our trip. We worked hard to make it happen. We weren’t wealthy – Ellen was a high school art teacher and I am a freelance photographer.
We go without a lot of amenities – we opt for free or cheap dry camping whenever possible, and often don’t have wifi for binge watching Netflix (my favorite!). We don’t eat out much, or buy clothes unless we absolutely need them (not like we have the space anyway). When designing our Airstream, we kept the interior simple so we’d have more money to travel. We live with less right now so we can experience more – it makes sense to us. So it really just depends on what you can do without – or how far you’re willing to push yourself.
Each lifestyle has it’s own trials and tribulations as well it’s beauty and perks. Some want land while others with land know the hard work involved in having land and want less. The grass is always greener on the other side, isn’t it? What do you think is the secret to happiness and deciding on a lifestyle that’s best for you? How’s that for a loaded question?
I love that I’m getting to answer this question right now, as we have been having these types of discussions lately. It’s a constant push and pull of emotions (I love this, I hate this), especially for me. I long for the comforts of home (you might catch me listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s song, Homeward Bound, on repeat one day…then America the next), yet I know when we are done and settled and have sold our Airstream, we’re going to miss the road like crazy. I feel we all tend to romanticize what we don’t have. I’ll be the first to admit that while I understood that living on the road would be rough, I also romanticized it greatly. Currently, I’m neck-deep in fantasizing about a stationary existence…Saturday markets, Sunday football on the sofa, the ability to sprawl out and have a moment to myself in my own shower, et cetera.
I say…you do what you want. Do it wisely, do it because you truly want it – not because someone else has it and you are jealous, but because in your heart, you know it’s absolutely right for you (and your family, if you have one). Life is short. We all know this…if you are looking around at your life and it’s not what you thought it would be, if it’s not as you imagined it, if it makes you sad…change it. Don’t waste a second. Start working toward change, one step at a time. Find what works for you. This may look different in a few months, a few years. That, I think, is the secret. Be open to change, be aware of who you are and what you need, and work for what you want in life.
I imagine you’ve traveled to many different places and I know some are more welcoming and forward thinking than others. Have you felt accepted as a gay couple?
Surprisingly, we’ve not had too many issues out on the road. One of the biggest reasons we left Kentucky was intolerance and prejudice, and no matter where we’ve gone, we’ve felt comfortable and accepted for the most part. It feels, at times, that we are constantly coming out over and over. We are always meeting new people and gauging their reactions as we introduce one another as each other’s wives.
There are a few key moments that stand out, two of which that occurred on the same evening – we were watching the sunset on the Redwood coast, and a woman nearby was scrutinizing us, sizing Ellen up (sometimes people try to figure out if she’s male or female – since short hair, tall height, and small breasts somehow equates masculinity, never mind the lack of stubble or Adam’s apple or frontal junk), which just, for the record, is completely unnecessary – why does anyone care whether or not she’s male or female? No one needs to stare that hard to figure it out, unless they want to somehow feel more comfortable if they can assume she’s male and not female and we’re you know, normal. She was so uncomfortable…we were in this beautiful setting, on a cliff over looking the ocean, and she couldn’t relax into me the way that woman was able to relax into her male partner. It didn’t seem fair…our evening was interrupted and tainted. That same evening, another woman had seen this happen – and took the time to compliment us on being (and I quote), a “neat family unit”, and went on to congratulate us on being so brave. What we remember about that evening wasn’t the incredible scenery, the crashing waves, the feeling of watching the sun dip below the water, what we remember is how two people made us feel like shit for just being us.
I tell this story for a few reasons – one, Ashley asked me this question, and two, she specifically asked me to share the ‘neat family unit’ story, and three…we don’t deserve comments or scrutiny such as those I shared above. We are good people, good parents, and love one another deeply. These are the only things that matter.
I think people are quick to assume that road life is synonymous with cheap food and drive throughs. I know you guys eat pretty clean. Can you give us an idea of what typical staples are in your diet for the following:
Breakfast: Sugar-free organic bacon, lacinato kale, and fried eggs with coffee and water. This is such an easy and filling healthy breakfast.
Lunch: If I could, I’d eat a turkey-and-cheese sandwich and potato chips every day for lunch…but that doesn’t work when you’ve cut out processed foods, sugar, gluten, or dairy. So instead, we make salads or lettuce wraps, and we have a lot of hummus and veggies. Soups are great in the cooler months.
Dinner: Since we only have one stove burner, I try to plan a lot of one-pan meals – soup with a big salad, risottos, rice pasta and homemade garlic sauce, chicken and veggies. We keep it really simple right now, although when we had a full-sized kitchen, our meals were much more involved!
Where do you see yourself and Ellen in 5 years? How about Birch & Pine?
I don’t have any idea – still married, still in love, still mamas. Professionally, geographically – I have no clue. That scares me a little, but to be quite honest – I love how wide open our future looks. I know that if we’d stayed in Kentucky, we’d not be in this position of beautiful possibility. We would have accepted our misery, our pain, and the life we didn’t want…instead, we’ve experienced this insanely beautiful, crazy hard, often ridiculous, amazing, eye-opening, soul-cleansing journey. All I can know right now is the love of my wife, the love of my child, and the love I have for them. The rest will come – we have plans, goals, and we’re working toward those goals…but we never expected this journey, so who knows where all of this will lead us?
And a few more questions more relative to your life now, in Indiana…
You’re no longer living life on the road and though I know you’re still settling in, what are the immediate pros and cons to settling back in that might have taken you by surprise/that you didn’t expect?
Quite honestly, I wasn’t expecting to feel so trapped. I thought I was ready. Ready to stop traveling, ready to settle in. I was craving so much, and now that I’m here, I miss the road desperately. A lot of this has more to do with circumstance than being stationary, as we are currently back in the Midwest and muddling through a pretty messy and emotional transition with our daughter’s biological father, who hasn’t been in her life much up until now. So not only are we figuring out life post-travel, readjusting to “normalcy” (over the holidays, no less!), we are learning to accept a new presence in our lives that is changing our family dynamic considerably, and it’s not necessarily for the better, at least not yet. We are in a completely new normal, and it feels foreign, sad, and scary – and daily I wish that things were different.
Outside of all of those things, I was surprised to see how quickly the people in our lives diminished our six-month journey – it’s as if we never left. We came back so changed…in many ways completely different people…and I find that friends and family expect us to be exactly the same as they remember us. We aren’t asked about the trip or how it affected us on a heart level, or even if we’d share some images or highlights. We are just back, and now that we’re here and not these elusive beings sharing snippets from afar, it’s business as usual. It’s the strangest feeling and one that I’m having difficulty putting into words, but it’s just awful to know you’ve been completely, irrevocably changed and no one seems to notice or care. It makes you wonder if you aren’t, and I don’t think I should question that based on what others do or say, but there it is.
The one pro in all of this emotional mess is we’ve realized how traveling is part of us now…that staying still for the rest of our lives just won’t work for us. My friend Su was talking me through a particularly difficult night and said, “once it’s (travel, the road) in your blood, you’re ruined” and that resonated so profoundly and loudly in my soul that it gave me, us, the very obvious answer that we needed – we aren’t done traveling and exploring and experiencing and learning what life on the road can teach us – not even close. With just five short months to go, we’ve set a goal to travel for a couple months this summer and keep adding to our map. Knowing that we can have the best of both worlds – be stationary and travel – was everything to us, the answer to so many questions.
How has your version of the story of your life on the road changed since you’ve settled into your new home? In other words, is it easier now to forget the hardships and simply reminisce on the more meaningful and beautiful parts of what was life on the road? I always think that the view of the past is seen best through rose colored lenses…which is how I justify all of the elderly people urging us young moms to enjoy every moment with young kids.
I haven’t forgotten the difficulties at all…because those were completely present and real and really fucking stressful. When my wife and I talk about our months living on the road in our Airstream, we are using those hard experiences as teaching moments for ourselves. Now that we’ve decided to continue traveling in the summers, we are using those hardships to determine what needs to change for our next go round – such as a newer and smaller Airstream with more amenities (heat, A/C, a hot shower, a real toilet), no cat on board (we’d leave him with a trusted friend or family member so there wouldn’t be a constant worry of him escaping or dealing with the stink of his shit in a tiny space), and a shorter stint out on the road (two months instead of six) with a well-mapped plan that has room for adaptation, as opposed to the vague “plan” we had for the last six months with very concrete commitments to people that were hard to keep when we found ourselves further away from the place we needed to be.
We were completely unprepared in so many ways our first time out, and while it’s hard to admit that, it’s just fact. There were things we did right, sure – but many things we did just didn’t work. It’s such a shift, living on the road in tight quarters, constantly on the move – and how can you ever be fully prepared for that? It’s one of those things that you have to get hands-on with, no how-to guide or advice or research is going to prepare you for it. We learned as we went and came out much wiser. We will learn even more this summer.
With all of that said, however, I know that those beautiful moments happened. I haven’t been able to think about them much; the beauty of them is so absolutely incredible that it hurts to relive them in just memory form. I can’t scroll back in my Instagram feed to see the images I took while out on the road, and my computer houses thousands of images from the incredible places we visited (Alaska, Oregon, Wyoming, the Yukon…the list goes on) that I’ve not had the strength to go through. Certain songs make me break down and cry, others bring back visuals and feelings so strong that I have to turn the song off. Those beautiful things happened and they were so unbelievable, even amidst the stress of road life…and one day I’m going to be able to sift through the photographs and listen to those songs and feel all of the things – but it may be a long while. Right now, I think it’s going to take being out on the road again to be able to begin to truly process all of the things felt and seen and experienced and learned, the awe, the times of feeling tiny yet strong and brave, all of those moments of our breath being taken away by the beauty of everything out there that waits for us to come notice it, to take it in.
I’m sure tons of people may have questions about your airstream, which you guys have renovated entirely on your own and have recently sold… Where can people find more information?
You can find us at www.birchandpine.co, where I am sorely behind on posting anything about our travels – or find us on Instagram, where I post far more regularly – our main account is @birchandpine, and we also have an account entirely dedicated to our Airstream renovation, where you can see the process from start to finish, @birchandpineairstream.
Writer & Photographer
B I R C H & P I N E
Instagram: @birchandpine & @birchandpineairstream
Pinterest: Birch & Pine