the story so far
My name is Hallie, I live in Portland, and I keep up this blog (very irregularly) because I’ve always enjoyed small living and I like to share ideas with other people who are also fascinated with tiny houses and living small/off-grid/scraping by in unusual ways. There seem to be enough of us out there that it’s worth writing about.
I had a fairly normal compulsory school career, by which I mean I didn’t hate every minute of it, but I didn’t have a lot in common with the folks I went to school with. College didn’t appeal to me in general after that baloney, so instead of enrolling right after high school with a direction and a major like many of us did, I got a series of poor-paying jobs, took a few elective classes on the side, and generally spent the freedom of my 20s trying to figure out who I was and what I actually wanted.
It didn’t take very long working for near-minimum wage for me to figure out that the capitalism game was not designed for very many people to win it. This annoyed me, in the same manner that playing Monopoly with cousins who were older and much savvier than I was had in the past. It didn’t seem fair that some folks had a natural advantage in this system – unlike what we’d been taught in school about hard work paying off, it immediately seemed obvious that your advantages had a lot more to do with how well you were born than how hard you worked. Disgusted, I started looking for ways not to play the game at all. My first move in that direction was to go on rent strike.
At the time I started my journey into Radical Mediocrity, I was working at a coffee shop. I’d had a series of roommates over the years since I’d left home, all in the interest of economics, but because I’m a sensitive snot in a lot of ways, this wasn’t an enjoyable way to cut living costs down to size for me. I’d been living in a tiny studio apartment alone and working a close-to full-time schedule, but noticed that I rarely had money left over beyond my basic expenses to have much more fun than I could buy in my immediate neighborhood. Wanting more adventure than this, I looked at expenses looking for things to cut. My rent payment attracted immediate attention due to its percentage of my income, and I quickly decided that it was an expense far out of proportion to the enjoyment I got out of renting, e.g. sleeping in a solitary location and fueling my new days with caffeinated beverages that I made at home.
I was single and unencumbered otherwise at that time, so having a fixed foundation wasn’t incredibly rewarding – not ‘$500 a month worth of rent and bills rewarding,’ anyway, when I made less than $8 an hour. Lavish surroundings aren’t required for sleeping or making tea, so I figured I could do these things just as comfortably while living in a cabover camper. The next thing I did to advance my radical new life, then, was to search the newspaper ads. (This was the early 90s, so yes – newspaper ads.) I found what I wanted for about $1,700 – a Ford F-250 farm truck and a 14’ Rollalong camper – signed papers for a car loan to pay for it, and moved into it that week. I painted it purple with the help of some friends later that month, banked several paychecks, quit my job – and lived in the purple camper for three years.
Part of the time I lived in the camper, I worked. Part of the time, I traveled. Part of the time, I slacked off around town, doing not a lot of productive anything … practicing guitar, going to bookshops to read, enjoying the company of my friends, taking meals in pubs and ranting on political issues (there was then, like now, a lot to rant about) and writing – a lot.
I enjoyed a much slower pace of life when I didn’t have a work schedule to revolve around. I met SuperG during a period of living in Eugene, with whom I would spend the next 13 years. Our life started with his moving into the camper with me and us living there together for the next year and a half. SuperG was quite a bit older than I was, and he appreciated the self-directed life I’d made, but eventually tired of living in the camper and changed the course of my journey.
SuperG made a compelling argument for moving from my rotting, 30-year-old wood-framed camper to a place with a foundation, running water and central heating – after 18 months of off-the-grid living in various inconspicuous parking locations around town. I wasn’t completely convinced at the time that this was a good idea, but because you’ll do strange things for people you love, I relented and we moved into a rental house together, again with roommates. In order to afford our share of the rent, I went back to full-time work at an office, while he continued working as well. We spent a lot of dough trying to make ourselves comfortable in this situation, but I quickly found that I hated this version of life every bit as much as I remembered from earlier. To get out of that rental arrangment, I bought a house.
Buying a house seemed like the grown-up thing to do, as I was now 25-years-old and in a position where I felt like I had to establish myself as a proper grown-up. SuperG and I had now been together three years, and I wasn’t interested in getting married or having children or doing anything of the other things that I felt at that time would automatically qualify me as a grown-up in the conventional definition. Buying a house, by contrast, counted under ‘survival’ anyway, since it is shelter, and conveniently seemed to legitimize my other non-traditional choices as irrelevant – at least, in my mind. I’d like to think that appearances didn’t figure into my choices, but in retrospect I’m sure they did. I’m also sure now that my perception of how much other people actually cared about any of this was inflated.
My desire to buy a house came in the magical year of 1999, a time when mortgages fell off the trees like leaves in fall. It was one of those poor-person loan programs that was designed to financially kill you that got my into my first house: down-payment assistance and an ARM loan. At this unique point in history, I won the gamble: my mortgage adjusted upward 1% the first year, then adjusted downward every year thereafter. This was completely unprecedented, as far as I could tell. It was like winning the mortgage lottery. After eight months in the house, I got rid of the camper and sold the truck. I decided my days on the road were over.
These miraculous economic circumstances allowed me to sell my house in 2006, at what later became clear was the peak of the market. I sold it after seven years of struggle to stay employed in some fashion that would allow us to make the payment on it every month, and I was worn down. Even more miraculously – when I sold it, I wound up getting almost every penny we’d paid on it back in profit. I couldn’t believe my luck, or my good timing.
At the time of the sale, I had been very sick for years and struggling just to get to work and back, and though I had health insurance and the advice of professional doctors, none of us could figure out why I felt so tired and foggy. For some time, I’d theorized that the stress of living like a normal person was killing me off, so I concluded that selling the house and going back to a smaller way of life would probably help. In 2006, after years of Dubya, the economy was now firmly in the tanker and though that led to the drop in interest payments, it also meant that all seven years were a constant struggle to work enough to pay the mortgage, and the last year, I was paying the mortgage alone: SuperG had moved out and we were struggling too as a couple.
For a little over a year, I lived in a Harry Potter room in my sister’s house. I’d planned on building a tiny house on a trailer in her driveway. She’d given me the idea by saving an article in the bOregonian’s Home and Garden section with the inspirational Dee Williams on its cover. I thought it was the coolest small living idea since the purple camper, and immediately went to work drawing what I thought would be my ideal tiny-home layout and moving furniture around in my sister’s family room to look at the effect of my drawings in 3-D. Then my mum revealed she had cancer and I fell into a black hole.
SuperG had left Portland to take a job in Tahoe City, California; we’d been together for over ten years. I was still coping with the loss of my home – it sold just in time to avoid financial disaster, but sold under financial duress even so – and I was now living with my sister under the cloud of my own undiagnosed illness. I’d gotten rid of most of the things I’d owned – a process that I would have found draining even if I’d been completely well. My mum was now critically ill and undergoing radical treatment. I had a meltdown at one point during that long, hard year. My circumstances were stressful, for sure, but I wasn’t coping with them in a normal way even for the circumstances. When I came back up for air it was necessary to my survival to pay cash for medical care that I hoped would reveal what was wrong with me.
Eventually with the help of a naturopath with experience in endocrinology, we learned that my thyroid function is low, and that medicating it helps a lot. I’m now also well read on the effects of mercury poisoning, which is a common antecedent for thyroid disease. As a result of the years of research I did, I realize I’ll continue back down the spiral until I get my amalgam fillings removed carefully and have an opportunity to recover from the heavy metal poisoning that provoked the condition I now have. Since most medical insurance doesn’t cover such treatment, I’m in a position now where I have to save up to have the dental work done on my own.
While all this was going on, the clock was ticking on the one-year limit my sister and I had agreed that I would live with her before moving on in some fashion, and I had lost steam for the building of the little house I’d wanted. I’d run out of energy (literally and figuratively) and was stuck in the pre-planning stages and considering just buying another camper much like the one I’d had in 1995. When I went through ads to find a replacement though, I realized that my heart had moved on from camper life, and I needed to advance in a different direction. Thanks to my medical problems, I’d become interested in non-toxic digs of my own making, where I controlled the building materials and I selected the least toxic ones I could find and afford.
SuperG moved back from Tahoe, bringing his construction savvy with him, and built most of the house himself while I art-directed the project and slowly recovered under proper medication for hypothyroid function. In July of 2007, in gratitude for his hard work, I used about half the proceeds from the sale of my home to buy SuperG his dream – a live-aboard sailboat, Columbia 34 model, which was docked in Newport, Oregon. In October of 2007, with the little house enclosed and roofed, we pulled it on its debut voyage down to a friends’ barnyard outside Corvallis, where it would remain for two years.
SuperG and I divided time during those two years between the Columbia 34 and the little house, working on the house at some times and escaping to the coast when the weather was horrible or to take a break from living under a pile of construction debris.
My friends’ family, including their four children and a flock of chickens, seamlessly integrated the little house and myself into their lives, and I’m always thankful that they put up with me at a time when I wasn’t always fun to have around. SuperG and I were falling apart after many years together; the pressure of living in spaces that constantly needed mechanical attention was so different from my previous experience of living small (the camper was finished when I moved into it) and building the first house either of us had ever attempted resulted in a lot of bickering at times. I’d read stories about the construction of Dream Homes ending in divorce, but since SuperG and I never wed, I thought it wasn’t relevant for me. (ha!) In truth, we would have fallen apart in any case; construction just acted as a more efficient tool for prying us apart than coasting along as we were would have been.
SuperG and I split up for good in 2009, with the house still unfinished. I moved with the little house back to Portland – the little house was then sided, mostly insulated, and partially plumbed – and my recovery to a normal metabolism made it possible for me to go back to work part-time. I spent my days re-adjusting to a life of bike-commuting from the remote village of Sellwood, enjoying being single again, and re-acquainting myself with nephews I’d barely seen for two years. After a long time living in very rural circumstances, I reveled in being mere blocks away from the library, the pubs, the spectacular farmer’s markets, and the restaurants that Portland has to offer. The fall leaves rained down on my metal roof, putting me to sleep and gently waking me up. Though I could only find part-time work to start with, my rent was cheap; I’d moved into the side yard of a family who wanted an hour a day of help around the house (and their four children) in exchange for the right to park there, and this low-financial-pressure situation made it possible for me to survive in an area that has a notoriously high cost-of-living.
About six months after moving back to Portland, a friend invited me to join her in Scotland for the summer to help out in auntie-fashion with her two young girls, and I leapt at the chance to enjoy an adventure again after so many years of feeling tied down with mortgage payments, then chronic illness. My ticket was as good as in the mail when I stumbled over my future husband, Capital-A. I was looking for someone crunchy (read: hippie) enough to enjoy possibly subletting my still-unfinished little house while I was away, and read my now-husband’s ad late at night, when I was feeling impulsive. I knew the little house wasn’t the situation he wanted (he was clear in his ad about not liking to move, and the sublet would only be temporary) but I liked the way he described himself and his dog and I was in a mood to be a little daring. I asked him out in a flip one-sentence email, and he answered back in the same disarming, casual and funny voice that his ad had been written in. We wrote back and forth several times a day for a week, pages upon pages of prose about our hopes and dreams and what we wanted out of life, and met a week to the day after we first wrote to each other.
Our first date lasted all weekend.
Capital-A and I spent as much time together as the clock allowed until my date with the international-departures terminal of PDX – and then didn’t see each other again for four months. We continued to write epic tomes, volumes and volumes of emails, back and forth, for the entire summer I was in Scotland. At the end of my trip there, I sent a ticket for him to come join me, we hiked the length of the West Highland Way together, and then came home to Portland. For six more months, we lived half in his rented room, and half in my little house, and to our surprise – even with his dog joining us and staying there for a week at a time with no central heating or running water – we never felt cramped or lacking for personal space in the little house.
We spent the holidays that year with Capital-A’s family in New Zealand’s summer, which included a tour of the converted bus and RV on display in their farmyard. I came home inspired, then looked around and realized it was still winter in Oregon. My inspiration to finish my own house evaporated as the cold winds blew and the rain poured down.
Capital-A and I worked hard to come up with another place to park the little house (the family I’d been parked with weren’t prepared to take on two more living creatures at their property), but at some point soon after I proposed marriage, we gave up looking, got married, and moved into an apartment together in the inner Eastside. The little house is now staying on a friend’s farm, still unfinished, while we continue to bike-commute and enjoy married life together in the city.
Recently, I was cruising the RV ads, seeking the perfect home on wheels yet again, and realized I was in a way looking for a way out of finishing the project I started. It’s been a long road for the little house – over four years have passed since SuperG and I finished framing it up and rolled it down the freeway to its first live-aboard parking space, and five years have passed since I took the first step and bought the trailer that we would eventually build half my life savings worth of Dream upon. I haven’t given up, but it seems that I have lost some of the momentum I’d had when I started.
I think that if I had been well, I’d have been better-equipped to take advantage of the Year of Free Rent that I’d started with. I could have made more progress on completing the house I had scribbled down in those early days. For now, it’s just a lesson learned that any project that is drawn-out for too long risks becoming obsolete before it’s finished. If I had finished the house I designed, it would still be obsolete for my new needs, but it would be finished as its own work of art. This journey has made me think about design in a new way – how to design living spaces that can be simple and affordable for single people who have very minimal housing requirements, without making them impractical for those same people after their lives have changed – by age, or marriage, or kids/pets – whatever. I’ve seen a lot of incredibly inspiring stuff on the topic of small spaces in the years since I started my little house. This is an exciting time to be living small, with so many creative minds working on the same problem – a need for smaller living spaces and less spending on housing – the number and quality of ideas out there to borrow from is amazing. I feel inspired every day by new things I see.
On my own house, I changed the layout of the interior once before SuperG and I had even gotten the interior sheathing up, because my needs had changed already (I hadn’t planned before on the constant company of four children and their attention to the house I brought with me). Now that I have a husband with a dog, both whom I’d like to have living full-time in the little house with me, and that husband has a full-time job and a love of showering as part of his necessary wake-up routine, my needs have changed again. I never planned for a shower in the little house, but my goal has now morphed from parking it somewhere on the cheap, to finding permanent land for it, so that I can satisfy my unforeseen needs with a few outbuildings (bicycle storage, bathing, an outdoor kitchen, etc.) and leave the design of the main house as it is.
Capital-A works at a job he cares about and I work with children that I care very much about too. My life has changed a lot since my early know-nothing 20s, and yet I remain the same person – and I’m still seeking a way to live more of my life with the people I love, and less working for money and the accompanying stuff that goes with that. Because the apartment we rent is dark and architecturally not my style, I’ve spent a lot of money on furnishings and eye candy that I never had when I was living more simply. I still have a need for the space I live in to be beautiful and comfortable, and when we’re both working for most of the week, it just takes a lot more money to do that. It wasn’t practical to move us both into an unfinished tiny house on a trailer and continue our work lives as-is, so for the last year, the finishing of the little house has been on the back burner.
It’s winter as I write this, and my energy has historically been turned inward during fall and winter, while spring seems to energize me for starting fresh and taking on new projects. I’ve had a year now to settle into my new life as newlywed, as a person with near-normal energy levels (for the first time in a decade), and as someone who enjoys some professional satisfaction in the context of my work for the first time in my life (I have a part time job at a preschool, and my shift ends in time for me to get to enjoy the company of my nephews after school now while my sister is at work).
I still can’t help looking at small homes and converted trailers and fabulous tents on the internets. There are so many amazing ideas out there, and so many inspired artists who made these spaces, and so much is great about all of them, it is hard sometimes for me to distill all that I’ve seen and been inspired by down into one 8’ x 20’ space, and finish that space and make it mine.
This coming year will be the year. I have to say that if I want it to come true.
Thanks for reading. Please feel free to share experiences of living small with me by email; I love the idea of building a community of like-minded people here in Portland.