A couple transform their compact SUV into a kitchen, dining, den, and bedroom-on-the-go for their epic journey from NYC to California—and back.
My possessions have seldom filled more than three rooms. I have been an urbanite for the better part of my adult life, and city living has made existing in small spaces familiar. We brush through empty pockets in crowded sidewalks to pass amblers, find our own stillness on a crowded subway and make eye contact with the bartender like there isn’t a room full of others doing the same. We live stacked atop and alongside the other inhabitants of our city and are suspicious of quiet. Our way of life is a doorstep to experiencing the excitement outside—an anonymous expedition through the city’s stage. I have oft considered my apartments a mere personal credenza in the likes of New York City, Paris and Berlin. And like the real estate adage, the smaller the apartment, the more grandiose the experience outside: location, location, location. It also meant: expensive.
And so, when my fiancé, Andrew, and I made the transition from a one-bedroom garden apartment in Cobble Hill to a car, the move was driven by the promise of grandiosity beyond our Brooklyn dwelling—one which would swell to the whole of the United States.
In a perfect storm of rising rents, West Coast wedding invitations and new career hopes, I quit my job. We packed our belongings into a 10’ x 10’ storage unit in Quogue and transformed our Buick Encore, a compact SUV, into our kitchen, dining, den, and bedroom-on-the-go. It would be the smallest quarters we’d ever had, but environs as dreamy as the Colorado Rockies, the canyons of Wyoming, the Pacific Coast Highway and beyond would become our front porch, our back deck, and long driveway.
In a few short days, our clothes, toiletries, camping mugs, first-aid kits, USB cords and HDMI cables filled my childhood bedroom in Amagansett, New York. From one village west of Montauk (“The End” of Long Island), Andrew and I prepared for everything we thought we might need to cross the country from the easternmost part of New York to the coast of California. I was energized in a whirlwind of imagination, and my native Minnesotan, outdoor aficionado fiancé guided our way. I recall the night before leaving, Andrew looked at our first-aid kit and then to me, “You know what to do if we’re hiking, I fall on a rock and start bleeding profusely, right?” “Nope, no idea;” I responded assuredly, confident in my inexperience. He sighed. The minutia of organization removed our minds from feared unknowns awaiting us in our big adventure.
In a small space, we knew that thoughtful organization would be paramount and so we reclaimed six stackable plastic drawers, leftover from my college dorm room and grabbed two taller, narrower sets of plastic drawers at a nearby store. Like the New York skyscrapers we were leaving behind, our belongings would be tall and stacked.
We each took three of the drawers, using them as our own clothing bins. I brought everything from water-resistant bike pants to a pair of stilettos. Andrew packed arguably less, but a tie made it in the mix for the three weddings we would be attending. We packed jogging gear, camping gear, a range of clothes fit for brunch in San Francisco, ATV riding in Montana and a spirit tasting in Nashville. “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat…” would be dodged. I dedicated one drawer to socks, undergarments, a scarf, hat, gloves and a bathing suit. One drawer carried my outdoorsy gear, from jeans to tees and tanks to running tights. My remaining drawer included dress pants, blouses, a fancy dress and a sun dress. Andrew, minus the dresses, added a bottle of whiskey to keep us warm over the campfire.
We removed the back seats of the car which added significantly more space and helped keep a level foundation for our packed items. Our clothing drawers would be accessible through the rear hatch of the car. This later drew strange looks from passersby as it was not infrequent we were parked on a sidewalk in Nashville or Portland, grabbing a new pair of socks or a change of clothes from the back dressers in our vehicle.
The two remaining stackable bins were our kitchenette, our toiletries drawer, even our junk drawer for maps and other tiny souvenirs we acquired along the way. In it, we also carried Andrew’s embossed National Park Passport, which we would stamp at the several visited on our journey—from the Great Smoky Mountains to Yellowstone National Park. We each kept a toiletries bag, shared a giant bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Almond Soap (which also came in handy for washing dishes) plus I had packed a makeup bag, blow dryer, comb, and brush. These bins were accessible from the driver’s side rear door or with a long backward stretch between the front seats of the vehicle. In the drawer most accessible from the passenger seat, we kept our on-the-go pantry—full of crackers, raw almonds, and occasionally gummies and licorice.
The rest of our kitchenette drawers contained camping plates, mugs and bowls, silverware, a chef’s knife, a mandolin—not for playing, but for julienned bell peppers—and a cutting board. On the road ahead, the actual places we would lay our head would range from campsites to AirBnB, hotels to guest bedrooms. Cooking would be a way to show gratitude to many of our hosts and ensure economic and healthy choices sans kitchen. Accessible from the passenger rear door was our Coleman Powerchill 40 Quart Thermoelectric Chiller. It charged in the standard plug built into the center console of the car and kept at a steady 40º F below the outside temperature while using less energy than a mini-refrigerator. In this way, we could pull over on the Blue Ridge Parkway, grab cheese and prosciutto out of our chiller, slice up a tomato and construct a sandwich for consuming at a serene, empty picnic table with a vista of North Carolina. We did not consume fast-food a single time on our travels through 29 states over six months.
Storage bags from the Ikea Skubb collection and a handful of vacuum bags made by Ziploc also proved imperative to our packing. Large bags were handy for storing vacuum-sealed winter wear that we would not need for several months of West Coast living. Small bags were great for shoes—from hiking boots to flip-flops, sneakers, stilettos, and ankle boots. Needless to say, I brought along more pairs of shoes than Andrew. An array of camping gear slipped into the car like real-life Tetris.
From campsites to weddings in wine country and the many cities and sites in-between, we were as prepared as we could be. Our own country had been such uncharted territory for me. Our car was now packed and ready or not, the journey was starting now. A not-to-scale New York state magnet was affixed to the rear of our car, with 47 others ready in waiting: Alaska and Hawaii were unlikely destinations this trip. A GoPro hitched to our front dashboard was set to record the drive at 60-second intervals (which we eventually improved to capture every 30 seconds) and on a sun-filled late August morning we faced the car toward Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett and hit Record. The sand looked especially white and the ocean, a most vibrant blue as the sun brightened and emboldened the beach. The adventure was underway. Living small would be our roadmap to living large.
Our tour of the U.S. would take us southward through Washington, D.C., North Carolina and Tennessee. We would then venture west into Arkansas, north through Missouri and up into South Dakota. Westbound, we’d cross the badlands into Wyoming, Montana and ultimately reach San Francisco. From Seattle to San Diego, Andrew and I covered the coast before our eastward return across The Loneliest Road in America through Nevada into Utah. 2,330 miles from Amagansett, we took an impromptu route through Colorado, visiting Aspen, Telluride, and Ouray before heading south on the Million Dollar Highway to Santa Fe. Eastbound once again, we high-tailed across Texas to Southwest Missouri for the holidays, followed by a frigid January visit to Columbus, Ohio and ultimately a rush to beat the most epic snowstorm of 2016 to reach New York City—where the city welcomed us back with a miracle parking space right outside the apartment, and then held us captive for two days of snowfall.
As much as we were prepared, there were still a number of unforeseen improvements we would make along the way. A week into our trip, we spent our first night in the outdoors at the Honeybear Campground in Boone, North Carolina. We set-up our tent, yoga mats, plaid wool blanket, and lanterns; we even brought a bistro style table and entry rug for more of a “glamping” feel. The temperatures dropped into the low 40s and our plan to sleep on sheets and use one sleeping bag as a duvet proved a total failure. The next day, we made a visit to R.E.I. and purchased an additional sleeping bag—there is a science to staying warm and we opted in. Our next camping edition was in Northeastern Arkansas where temperatures and humidity levels surpassed 90º F and 90 percent, and we were awake by dawn for the sheer joy of returning to air conditioning.
It was also during these camping experiments where we learned that while our car was expertly packed, it was not easily unpackable. We soon purchased a 20 cu. ft. X-Cargo topper from Sears and our new attic would hold our lanterns, tents, sleeping bags and all the rest of our camping equipment which made the entire set-up and takedown process easier by two-fold. As winter approached a few months later near Lake Tahoe, we also learned about California’s requirement for snow chains and a purchased a pair of these to have ready for our tires. In Aspen, a blizzard hit and I purchased a pair of ski pants and a ski jacket at a nearby thrift shop as I realized my original plan of layers was not going to cut it. It also suited me for an impromptu day on the slopes while Andrew found a company called Suit Yourself, where a guy named Lorenzo showed up in a parking lot with a van full of ski and snowboard gear of all kinds and sizes, and on the mountain we were.
For us, the practicalities of living and working on the road are dependent on Internet access. Monday thru Friday lose their meaning to daily work sessions squeezed into the morning, afternoon or night at a café, bar or rented apartment with our laptops. It just so happened that Andrew needed to meet a deadline at the time we were camping beneath Mount Rushmore and made multiple late-night drives in pouring rain to catch one bar of phone service to do so. For such times we were flexible to adjust course. There was a 48-hour stop in Rapid City, SD where we barely left our hotel room diving into work, but when we lifted our heads up it was to look out onto the Badlands. For us, it was hardly a sacrifice, for we were grateful for the opportunity, even if some moments proved difficult or raised a feeling of homesickness. We tried to create a sense of stability even amidst constantly changing locations by limiting consecutive days on the road. This allowed us time to balance work and sightseeing. There would be weeks when we were completely motionless and committed to one city and other instances when we paused for just a night or two in a destination, propelling our way forward.
Before our first foray into the great West from Kansas City, we had seldom ever driven a distance longer than five or six hours but the sheer vastness of country beyond the Missouri River meant longer driving days and an audible “Woah!” from Andrew and I as we crossed epic canyons and valleys. The West is a place where the terrain is omnipresent and man is master of none, even dwarfing city skyscrapers as though it could swallow Manhattan in one large gulp.
The only fixed itinerary items were three weddings and the holidays. Otherwise, we determined our general destination drawing a line on our atlas, and would start to plot where exactly we would sleep and shower about two or three weeks ahead—I promise we had the opportunity to shower (almost) daily.
Writing this nearly a year since we set off, I can tell you we have not yet chosen a place to stay put. We’ve slowed down, spending more time with family on Long Island, in New York City, Columbus, Springfield, MO, and Minnesota, preparing for our nuptials in the fall. Our road trip across the country began with so many unknowns and now fills our minds with memories, stories, imagery, newfound friends, and experiences. It is familiar and a mark on who we are and who we will become. I learned if we can dream it, we can do it. We are still compelled to wander through cultures and landscapes, to chance upon the traditions left to us from an earlier time and the makings of this generation, and so we have not unpacked our bags. Indeed, one day in the not too distant future, we dream of seeing our furniture again, making a home for ourselves—one without wheels. Then, we will unpack.
*This is an excerpt from Jeanie and David Stiles’ book Building Small: Sustainable Designs for Tiny Houses and Backyard Buildings