Lifestyle

From Beauty’s Doorstep, Part 2: Making Room for Play

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Trying to pare your possessions down to only what fits inside 180 square feet can be a challenge. But there's magic to be found as you make room for life.

Since July 2016, Carmen Beaubeaux and her husband, Jim, have traveled full time in their 30-foot, 2001 Airstream Travel Trailer. Their Airstream, Beauty, has taken them 47,000+ miles to 330+ campgrounds, 48 States, and four Canadian Provinces – so far. Carmen is the author of the website Living in Beauty, where she chronicles the couple’s Airstream journey through North America’s most scenic parks, cities, and small towns. "From Beauty's Doorstep" is a six-part series for Airstream in which Carmen details their retirement to full-time Airstreaming. Read Part 1, "Our Retirement Un-Plan," here.

Making Room for Play

“Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.” – Friedrich Schiller

It was April 23, 2016.

The overloaded tricycle pitched, side-to-side. Moving slowly but steadily along, I struggled to keep the basket contents from shifting and hurling me off the sidewalk and onto the street. Nevertheless, it was happy work. Beauty’s key swayed rhythmically on the lanyard around my neck, catching the bright morning light. At last, my super-secret solo mission had launched into full, wobbly motion.

The surprise on Jim’s face would be my reward. Tonight, he would arrive home from work to find our remaining household transferred into Beauty, our new home on wheels. Tomorrow there would be no need to throw it all into The Beast – our tow vehicle and sole source of transportation – in a frantic, messy rush. We would be able to focus solely on setting up camp at the resort where we’ll stay for the next two months before Jim’s official retirement.

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I weaved down the block where our 30’ Airstream conspicuously occupied a choice section of curb on the corner of the public park. Across the street, Stephanie, our mail carrier, squinted in my direction. Recognizing me, she waved.

Then, the faint sound of a bugle stopped each of us in our tracks. Morning Colors. It was 0800. The day begins early in this Navy town. The Village – as the locals refer to this part of Coronado, California – was already in full swing. As the last note faded we resumed our pace. Jim and I were lucky to call this beach town home for the last twenty years.

“I will miss hearing that,” I shouted to Stephanie.

“I’ll miss you guys!” she shouted back. “When do you leave?”

“Tomorrow!”

She mugged a Weary Willie frown and waved farewell with a handful of mail.

I glanced around, hoping our exchange didn’t attract attention. Best to stay under the radar. The night before, Jim and I bailed Beauty out of the dusty storage facility, and in the dark of twilight parked her in the only available space near our house. It all seemed so clandestine. Driveways are rare in Coronado so feudal wars over parking spots are common, and strict oversized vehicle laws are actively enforced. The 72-hour permit we posted on Beauty’s curbside window only increased the pressure.

Slipping the key into the latch I caught my reflection on the surface of Beauty’s shiny, riveted aluminum skin. With a stack of hats and caps on my head, shoulders dressed in layers of house robes, overcoats, raincoats, scarves, and a menagerie of colorful handmade baskets dangling like dry cicada husks from my arms, I cast the image of The Madwoman of Chaillot. I treated myself to a mischievous grin and turned the key.

No time to waste. I tossed the winners of the Great Divestment of Our Worldly Goods over the threshold. Then, I stepped inside.

That’s when it hit me. Welcome to your new reality, Carmen.

The entire floor, the chairs, and the dining area were covered in baskets – baskets for cotton picking, baskets for berry picking, egg gathering baskets, picnic baskets…

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The miscalculation was staggering. And, this was only the first load. And, I was already exhausted.

Last night Jim and I had worked till well after dark. We had repurposed the Airstream’s coat cabinet to make a splendid food pantry. The conversion had been my idea. I felt like a genius of small-scape kitchen design. But now, that tricky part of my brain which I usually reserve for the important business of denial turned on me, saying, What were you thinking? How can you possibly manage in such a small space?

I launched into an Alice in Wonderland moment, scurrying down a rabbit hole of self-reflection. On the previous weekend, I had steadied my quivering chin as I said goodbye to my beloved patio plants – even the towering fifty-year-old tropicals, inherited from Mom, rode away in pick-up trucks. A month earlier I made peace with the loss of our family library, all three thousand books were sold, gifted, or donated. I accepted this new condition of being plantless, bookless, paperless and – by tomorrow, houseless – as the going price for creating a new reality.

But the baskets…no, that was the last straw.

The Choctaw swamp cane baskets from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, near my mother’s ancestral home, hold my admiration for the hunter-gatherer life and serve as an ongoing reminder of how the most useful items are constructed out of thin air. These miracles of female engineering weigh almost nothing yet they can bear heavy loads over long distances and endure for decades.

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One basket had served as my college book bag – a professor once teased me about it, calling me “a basket case,” not realizing the phrase originated from WW1 battlefield slang for a soldier with extreme wounds.

And another – my favorite – served as my young son’s school lunchbox.

These straw-into-gold handworks adorned my home as market baskets and storage for crafts, blankets, umbrellas, fruit, or whatever needed toting. It had been my intention to hold onto each one. The familiar colors and patterns would carry me through this transition. But, suddenly I realized that they didn’t belong here. Their dimensions were too bulky, patterns too noisy, and their function superfluous. The Airstream’s cabinetry and lockers with space-saving niches provide more than sufficient storage for two full-timing adults.

A knock at the door interrupted my basket meltdown.

I peeked out from behind the curtains. The concerned faces of two police officers waited to speak with me, their attention momentarily diverted to another police officer as he apparently instructed an idling tow truck driver to circle the block so the vehicle would be properly positioned to haul Beauty away.

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A Brief Intermission: Why We Started This Journey in the First Place

Okay. Let’s flashback.

It’s not like we didn’t give this full-timing thing a lot of thought. Our doctors were on board with telemedicine even before it recently became normalized. We had performed several successful tests of our iPostal One snail mail service. Voting was no biggie. We’d been voting by mail for over a decade and would continue as always.

Through Zoom, Jim would carry on as a consultant for non-profits. My audio technician, Deborah Reeves, groomed my mobile studio and tweaked settings so I could produce high-quality audio and podcasts. As a safety measure, our son and my dad were set up to track us on Find Friends.

Just like millions of Americans, young and old, we would become part of a growing mobile community and continue as active, informed, and interested citizens, dedicated to our family and friends and connected to our community while living in Beauty.

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Technology makes it all possible. In this digital age, living small and mobile is easier, safer, and rewards travelers with more creative time to pursue diverse interests. And, people living happily within one-hundred and eighty square feet of floor space precedes the internet. Thousands of trailblazing Airstreamers, old enough to be my grandparents, led the way before I was out of training pants.

Yet, there is a learning curve. When downsizing into any mobile lifestyle every inch is precious, so every ounce of gear must be essential, multi-purpose, or both. Big playgrounds come to those who sacrifice. Our rule is, if we can’t find an item and put our hands on it in under thirty seconds then we don’t need it.

So, months prior to acquiring Beauty we systematically scaled down our possessions and began practicing. We ditched the food processor for a good set of knives; baked in small batch silicone pans; used a single shelf in our giant side-by-side refrigerator/freezer; designed tiny kits for sewing, manicure, first aid, make-up, and hand tools. Shoes and outerwear were narrowed down to basic essentials.

And on weekends we tested our skills. San Diego County offers almost every kind of environment one might encounter in North America, so we camped on the bay …

and the beach …

in the mountains …

and in the desert.

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We rehearsed until leveling, hitching, unhitching, water filtering, water conservation and tank maintenance became second nature. Our breaking-in period – though riddled with mistakes and mishaps – was joyful, exhilarating, liberating and addictive. To this day, we cherish every newbie moment as we acquainted ourselves with our future home.

For us, it’s not about aesthetic minimalism, frugality, or glamping.

Going light is essential for sustainable travel. Less stuff facilitates comfort and mobility. But, as we freely shared our dream with others, we recognized that the morality of materialism is personal and complex, and clashes between the world of Belonging and the world of Wandering are deeply rooted in opposing philosophies of consumerism. The old Sapiens squabble about farming life (Belonging) versus hunter-gatherer life (Wandering) still carries over from prehistory, stoking anxieties.

As avid Belongers for most of our lives, we were sensitive to the question, “But, why leave your San Diego paradise?” We acknowledged the inadequacy of our answer, “Because it’s time.”

So, quietly and systematically, Jim and I lowered our consumption and preened our dream until, at last, we were fully-fledged and ready to Free Bird.

“If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me? For I must be traveling on, now, ‘cause there are too many places I’ve got to see.”

As a navy brat, I treated every move like a little death – a state of liminality that deserves a rite of passage. So I would throw something overboard that was holding me back – nail-biting, or a beloved doll which I’d outgrown, or shyness. This helped me to move on my own terms and to celebrate change.

The nomadic Kumeyaay – the first residents of the San Diego region – burn the possessions of their departed family members’ in ritual funeral fires. Sending favorite items into the afterworld encourages the soul to move on. Jim and I took that ancient wisdom as advice. The future is uncertain, and personal needs change over time. Why saddle ourselves to a house we don’t want to grow old in? And, why hoard a storage unit full of stuff we may never use? As long as we are both on board, together, that’s all that matters.

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Back to the Police at My Door

Beauty had been reported numerous times over the last twelve hours. The police were merely conducting an investigation with a tow truck. I directed their attention to the parking permit displayed in the window. A flurry of confusion ensued – radios popped out of holsters; the tow truck pulled up in front of Beauty; a conference gathered around the driver; the tow truck left.

Then, the attention turned to me. No one was allowed to sleep in the trailer, they said, and Beauty had to be moved the moment 72-hours had elapsed or earlier, and the earlier the better. Then, they left me to resume my work.

I called Jim, but when he answered I could barely speak – my throat still swollen around words I’d held onto during the ordeal – yet, the whole story of my day eked out well enough, ruining my surprise.

“So," he said. "That's why you wouldn't sell your trike.”

“Yeah,” I sniffled.

Then he consoled me by noting that the trailer might have been towed if I hadn’t been present, causing untold damage.

“Very likely,” I said. “But, another problem is…my baskets.”

“I know,” Jim said. “It’s okay. Let’s deal with the small stuff up the road."

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That liberating nomadic language – up the road – worked its magic. Immediately, my mood lifted because I realized that we had finally earned the right to use those words.

And then I remembered my youth and how, on stormy days, Mama would push the furniture back against the wall to make room for her children to play. The empty floor space became an elastic playground – a fishing pond, a castle, or a ship. The baskets' work was done. They had furnished my dream and inspired a simpler, more fulfilling life. Now, it was their time to move on. Eventually, I would let all but three of them go as gifts to close friends.

I locked Beauty and dashed to the house for the next load. In the alley, I encountered a new neighbor walking his dogs. “Nice Airstream,” he said. Later, that afternoon he came by for a closer look and revealed that he, too, harbored the dream of an Airstream adventure. He wished us well and still follows the Living in Beauty travel journal.

After the last tricycle load, I collapsed on the trailer floor. Every proper sitting place overflowed with household goods. Within four weeks, half of the trove would be gone. One year later, we lightened up again by more than half. The work continues.

A Moment to Relax Before the Journey Begins

Someone knocked at the door.

I peeked through the curtains, prepared to see a tow truck. Jim stood there with two of my favorite things: His sideways smile and a bottle of ice-cold Rosé. We sat together on the floor and sipped from a single cup because neither of us had the energy to forage for another one. Jim proposed a toast to the last night of sleeping on the floor of the house.

Then, Evening Colors commenced and we stepped out into the sunset to honor the ensign both of our Dads served under, North Island Naval Air Base, until the last echoing note of “Call to Re-treat” retired beneath a feathery blanket of orange and raspberry clouds.

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Too pooped for more celebration, we locked Beauty up for the night. But, if we had known what we know now – that the best years of our lives had officially begun – we would have clasped hands under the rising moon and danced, light as air, over every blade of drought-resistant grass in the public park until the morning sun arose.

But that would probably have been illegal, anyway.

The street lights came on and, wearily, we coaxed our aching bones across the street. In the crosswalk two high school boys zipped past us on skateboards.

“Hey, cool trailer,” said the first to the second.

“Classic,” said the second to the first.

Carmen Beaubeaux, and her husband, Jim, have been traveling full-time in their 2001 30’ Air-stream since July 2016. 48,000+ miles, 330+ campgrounds and 48 States/4 Canadian Provinces so far. She is the author of the website www.LivingInBeauty.net, which chronicles their Airstream journey through North America’s most scenic parks, cities and small towns.