Kate Oliver | The Modern Caravan

Alongside her wife and daughter, Kate Oliver hit the road for the first time in June 2015. After seven months, however, they abruptly had to stop traveling.

They spent a year and a half working to get back to travel full-time and are now on the road again living out of their second self-renovated Airstream, running a business renovating more vintage Airstreams – The Modern Caravan.

We talked to Kate about her story of loss and revival, why travel is so important, and what it’s like to run a woman-owned business in a male-dominated industry (particularly as a married lesbian couple who also parent, travel, and un-school their daughter). While Kate’s story is unique unto itself, her writing takes us home somehow, and gives us a gorgeous glimpse into their life on the road.

Learn more about Kate. Interview below!


Meet Kate

Tell us about your current Airstream home & where you’re currently parked.

Our current Airstream home is a 1977 Overlander, which we aptly named “June”, after the month we were set to get back on the road. We are currently in Austin, Texas for work, though we spent the summer out west, traveling and visiting with friends from Montana to Utah.

You initially hit the road two years ago but had to stop traveling after only seven months. Can you speak a little to what happened then? What is your story of, as you put it, “loss and revival”?

In the old days, some might call our family “broken”. I’m sure some still would. When I was very young, I got married and had a baby with a man I barely knew. In the few short years that followed, the marriage dissolved, but a connection remained – our daughter. This tiny little link, bound by blood. In those first years, we didn’t see him much. All I knew then was how to get through and get by, just me and her – this wiggling little force of life that kept me going.

And then Ellen. We’ve known one another for thirteen years now, but at that time, were simply best friends who’d lost touch. Everything changed in our lives, all three of us – it was brighter. There was possibility.

With my wife, we take on more than I would have ever imagined – and life is more beautiful than I ever thought possible. We hit the road knowing we were doing something big, something meaningful. I’d never really known the meaning of true hard work until we prepared to get on the road – renovating and selling our house, renovating our first Airstream, working three jobs to make ends meet for all the costs associated with all the work. We’d never wanted anything more than to travel, to live tiny, to push our own boundaries and limitations, to experience everything we’d never gotten to, to learn, to grow in ways yet untested.

The phone call came during a snowstorm in the mountains of Colorado. In tears, I sat in a small cafe crowded with laughing, happy snowboarders and skiers, on a break from the slopes. My lunch went untouched, even though I’d been starving. He was ready to be a part of his daughter’s life – a good thing. A good thing, I reminded myself, even as I was seeing that what he wanted meant we’d lose what we’d worked so hard for. He wanted us to come back to Indiana, and I could only see one door to walk through. We felt we were being given no choice, and I wasn’t willing to let the matter go to court, which was the alternative I was given.

The night before we drove back to Indiana, we cried together in a hotel room, the three of us. Our daughter didn’t understand, at five years old, as much as she tried. She cried for the road, cried for our Airstream, and we let ourselves cry with her. And then we all grew silent.

In the months that followed, we worked to make our life comfortable and normal – our Airstream was sold, and we signed the lease on a small house in the city. Ellen returned to teaching art at a rough school in a rough part of town, and I sought employment in marketing. We bought a sofa and dishes – we had nothing to furnish a house – we’d sold it all to travel. In many ways, we didn’t know how to move forward. How could we, when we weren’t calling the shots in our own lives? We’d lost something we loved, and had no idea if we’d ever get it back.

In many ways, we didn’t know how to move forward. How could we, when we weren’t calling the shots in our own lives? We’d lost something we loved, and had no idea if we’d ever get it back.

When we got on the road the first time, we spent a year and a half preparing to get there. We were never certain that it would happen until we pulled away from the curb, hooting and hollering in utter disbelief. So we returned to that mentality – maybe we’d never get on the road again. Maybe we’d stay in the Midwest, and work, and live in our little rented house, and always miss what we’d lost. Or … we could work for what we wanted, even though there was no guarantee we’d ever know it again. We kept a shred of faith that we could cultivate a good relationship with our daughter’s father and find a way to get back on the road … with his blessing and understanding.

Getting back on the road wasn’t as simple as just doing it. We had to work for it and wait for the right timing. It’s not at all surprising to me that it took another year and a half to get here, and just as before, we weren’t certain it was going to happen until we were gone. There were many days where I felt it wasn’t going to happen until our daughter was grown and it was just me and my wife in our forties, finally getting some semblance of our dream back: yet our dream includes our daughter. We love to see her experience life this way. To learn about the world around her by being in it. To see her come alive on the trail.

One evening in early spring of this year, I was working alone in our current Airstream and my ex-husband came by to chat with me. As we stood in our unfinished trailer, I was able to share my heart with him about the business we’d been building, and how I was waiting to sign contracts with clients until he and I had a chance to speak. I shared with him how difficult life had been for us since getting off the road, how much we loved it, and how passionate we are about the work that we do and the way we want to live our lives.

A few months later, we wrapped up our first client renovation and got back on the road in the middle of a late June thunderstorm, headed for the unknown, with free and clear hearts and minds. It wasn’t a celebratory, over the top moment, but one where we knew, without a doubt, that we were right where we should be – and that we hadn’t given up on ourselves and our dreams.

 

You and your wife started a business renovating vintage Airstreams. You now travel to your renovations and live next to your current project, effectively intertwining your work and travel lifestyle. How did you make this happen?

Late one night, as we were wrapping up our first Airstream renovation and were about to get on the road for the first time, we were laying in bed, exhausted and simultaneously exhilarated.

“I could do this for a living,” Ellen said, very matter-of-factly.

“We’d have to do another one first!” I replied, laughing.

Ten months after those words were spoken, we got that chance, and as we began to round the corner on our second Airstream renovation, we realized the very real passion we had for this work. It hadn’t been handed to us, and we hadn’t ever started an Airstream renovation with the intention of it being a money-maker. It was just something we loved, and enjoyed doing together. Our strengths were compatible, and we were physically, emotionally, and mentally able to handle the immense undertaking not once, but twice within a year and a half. Surely we could do this work for others and the market for it was certainly there. The traveling community has grown exponentially in the past few years.

We loved the idea of intertwining what got us into Airstream renovation – travel – with the work itself. It seemed so natural to travel to our projects, fully immersing ourselves into the culture, landscape, and people – in locations predetermined for us based on the work we signed. It would allow us to really know our clients and their needs, determining the design and function of their tiny spaces based on who they are and how they already live. It spoke to so much – our love of people, community, and experiencing new places. Experiencing life. When we sign a new client, we are very selective. Living on someone’s land and sharing a space – a life – requires a great deal of chemistry and compatibility. We hand-pick our clients and locale, which we recognize is a privilege – but also what makes the work we do so special. When we hand off a finished project to it’s owners, we can know that we’ve created something incredible and completely personalized.

What has it been like to own this business in a male-dominated industry? 

That which is labeled is abnormal, that which isn’t labeled is normal. Examples of this include: gay marriage vs. marriage, black churches vs. churches.

We have to prove ourselves because we are not the norm. Construction – stereotypically – is a male occupation. We feel we must work harder to prove our ability, as every little mistake we make can and has been blamed on the fact that we are women and “don’t know what we’re doing”. Experience aside, capability aside, knowledge aside: if we aren’t perfect at our craft, it’s our gender that causes us to make mistakes, not our humanity.

We could give too many frustrating examples of how we’ve been treated as lesser than in this industry already, but knowing this audience is predominately women, I’m sure many of you can relate and understand. We are all defying expectation by what we do – there was a time where women weren’t allowed to be outdoorsy, run their own businesses, vote. We are still fighting for equality.

We are soft, approachable, and kind. We create beautiful, honest spaces … ultimately, we celebrate our gender and the difference it makes in the way we work in this often rough and tumble industry.

We’ll leave this question with this: we believe are running a business that is seen as a man’s game in a new way. We can go out and bust ass and build muscle and sweat and curse and get dirty and lift heavy shit and use power tools, and we can also really love what we do, take a personalized approach, see our work as meaningful. We are soft, approachable, and kind. We create beautiful, honest spaces. We are mothers who take breaks throughout the day to parent, to teach. We love on one another throughout the day, being affectionate and kind and sweet. We create deep connection with our clients. Though it’s certainly difficult at times and we certainly feel extra pressure because of our gender, ultimately, we celebrate our gender and the difference it makes in the way we work in this often rough and tumble industry.

Is there such a thing as a typical day for you? What might one look like?

A day here tends to start with a bit of chaos – we don’t get a lot of slow, easy mornings. Generally we get pounced on by our daughter, the cat, and occasionally the dog as a wake-up call. I make the bed while Ellen starts the coffee. We always sweep and tidy up and make our beds – it likely goes without saying, but living in a tiny space makes it difficult to ignore the mess. When our home is clean, our days all go better.  

A rare calm morning

Ellen works with Adelaide on school while I finish up the coffee, and then we generally try to make a big, protein-packed breakfast to keep us going while we work: bacon, eggs, kale, collard greens, a bit of fruit. Depending on the day, either Ellen will head out to work on an Airstream and I’ll stay back to sit at my desk for a few hours, answering emails, working on design plans for clients, updating social media/our website, et cetera. Other days, we’re both outside by 8:30-9:00, coffee in hand. We take turns helping Adelaide with schoolwork, and then break for lunch around noon. We always take an hour and make a big lunch.

Evenings are busy – we empty our tank, take long, hot showers, and then prepare dinner. We rarely eat out and make whole, Paleo meals from scratch. We crack open beers or share a bottle of wine and listen to soothing Bluegrass as we cook and eat, and our daughter helps or plays. After we’re finished, we clean up, do a bedtime routine with Adelaide, and crash into our own bed around 10:00 and pull out our laptops to catch up on work and check the next day’s schedule.

On days we aren’t renovating – and we’re traveling and exploring, the days are slower. There’s time to rest and be. We hike, play guitar and sing together, read, try new foods.

 

What is it like living on the road as a lesbian married couple? Have some places felt more or less welcoming than others?

The road – like any other place – is full of people.

It’s unpredictable.

There are places that are traditionally liberal where we’ve been spoken to unkindly, or been openly judged. We’ve been places that are traditionally conservative where we’ve been welcomed and treated with kindness. Or vice versa. We never really know how things will be. There are places where we hesitate to be affectionate in public, and places we celebrate being able to be affectionate. There are places where we hold our guard up, and places we let it down.

It is different, traveling as a gay couple – but then again, our very lives are different, being a gay couple. No matter where we are, we never know who we might encounter and what their hate, fear, beliefs, or judgment might cause them to say or do. We can’t escape it – it’s on social media, in our lives, in our work. Yet overall, we have seen that most people think that love is love, because love is love. Yet we would be doing a disservice to ourselves and the rest of our community to only share the positives and light – as if the darkness and hate doesn’t exist. It’s very real, and very alive, and we feel it and experience it. There is still work to be done, and we will keep living boldly and sharing our story, our love, in the hopes that it will change hearts.

You say the odds are stacked against you but you carry on and triumph. What motivates you to do so?

The life I have is a privilege. Traveling is a privilege. Terrible things happen, and far worse things than what I’ve seen or experienced. To have as much beauty as I do is not something to let slip away or ignore or be ungrateful for, even if life is sometimes painful and trying. I have love – I have a wife that loves me unconditionally. A daughter that is full of life and love and joy. I have everything, right there.

It is too easy to dwell on the negative. It’s easy to be scared. It’s easy to let others keep you down. Looking back, I see that all the pain I’ve experienced in my life has made me a person aware. Aware of self. Aware of others. Aware of good. Aware of danger and evil. I’ve learned to trust my gut, to trust myself, to trust my wife. Even in my fear, I want to be strong. Brave. I want to face adversity, heartache, pain, fear, and brokenness. I want to stand up to the people who try to drag me (and my wife) down. I want my daughter to see that her mother is a fighter. A lover. If she can have goodness and beauty and love, then I have done my job.

I could be angry – and I have been. I could allow all the shit I’ve seen and experienced and had taken away from me slow me down. Break me. Terrify me. Stop me in my tracks. Yet I am reminded, again and again, of these four words:

We get one life.

Why waste it?

Photo by Ashley Jennet

If your work/travel life with Ellen was a venn diagram, where would you overlap and where would you differ?

Ellen does all the driving. She loves to drive and handles it beautifully. She remembers to do things like setting the trip to check our mileage for the day and always knows how many miles to empty. She takes care of all the shit, because my sensitive nose and gag reflex can’t handle it (dog and cat poo, composting toilet), plans our work schedule and arranges it all in a calendar that notifies both of us on all our devices, is project fore(wo)man and takes the lead on builds, and is the best backrub-giver and beer-and-Lowe’s-runner ever.

I do everything with a screen, because Ellen really hates screens and generally can’t find her phone. This includes emails, marketing, social media, DJ, planning travel days, finding campsites, and GPS coordinate input, personal and office related scheduling, photo edits, and website updates. I am the lead designer on our renovation projects and work one-on-one with clients to come up with their ideal space. I manage our social life and try to stay on top of keeping our familial relationships and friendships intact – I fail at this more often than succeed, we really are too busy these days, and we want to change that. I am the tidier, the deep cleaner, and the one who keeps our worksite organized.

Ellen Swimming

Where we overlap: we are always parents together. We often remind Adelaide of this – we will always be on the same page as one another, and talk through conflict and decisions and how best to handle new behavioral phases. We work on lesson plans and both teach and assist our daughter with her schoolwork, share meal prep and clean up equally, and overall, just help one another get un-stuck. Problems, emotions, fears, situations we find ourselves in. We make all decisions together and compromise to make sure the other person is happy and comfortable.

Does your daughter like life on the road? Tell us about your experience unschooling her.

We are finding a really fantastic balance with the way we are approaching Adelaide’s learning. The idea of unschooling, in general, is allowing the child to lead their learning. We observe Adelaide’s patterns and interests and allow her to work on things she loves.

She has a great love for science and technology. She loves learning about weather patterns, geology, and biology. Taking her on hikes and integrating the National Parks Service Junior Ranger program into her studies allows her to learn about things she loves in a very hands-on way. She loves to draw and spends hours a day with her nose in a sketchbook, a black pen in hand, and often her drawings are of vehicles (vans, RVs, Airstreams, Teslas), the landscapes we see, and the people she loves.

Ellen, Kate, and Adelaide, first time traveling, September 2015 on the Southern California coast – Photo by Ashley Jennett

We want learning to be a wonderful experience for her, and through life on the road, we have been able to give her experiences that she is learning from in a real way. We aren’t kidding around when we say that living on the road and living small makes her come alive – she’s a very different kid in comparison to stationary life and traditional schooling. She’s kinder, happier, less afraid. She’s interested in being around other people, and we love that living on the road enables her conversational and social skills: she has no trouble carrying on a conversation with an adult or a peer. She’s less materialistic, and more concerned about the world around her and her impact on it.

Take a photo of your 5 must-have items for van life. 

  • Camera(s) – Though there are places we don’t take a single photo, I want to be able to look back through all of these years someday, when Adelaide was young and her belly and face still round, the days when our hair was only partially grey, and when we were living exactly the way we hoped we would.
  • Laptop – To write, run our business, and edit photos.
  • Drills – We carry a lot of tools around with us, given the nature of our business, but our hers-and-hers drills are the most versatile and the ones we use the most. Having a drill handy is a necessity for us.
  • Beer – It’s no secret around here that we love a good craft beer, and we often crack open a can or three after a long, hard day of renovation work. We’ll play some guitar and sing with beers in hand, or I’ll write while Ellen works on something outside.
  • Hats & Bandanas – Hats and bandannas fall under the same protective category for us – the hats keeping us cool and shaded, and a bandanna, always, to wipe the sweat and our hands, wrap around our faces for a quick filtered mask, or dipped in cool water and tied ‘round our necks to keep us cool while working or hiking on the hottest days.

What landscapes are you most drawn to? What’s your favorite place you’ve parked your Airstream so far?

It would be difficult to pick just one. Each place we’ve been is so incredibly beautiful in it’s own way. I am often drawn to the desert landscape. When I was fourteen, I traveled outside of the Midwest for the first time and fell in love with the colors and dust of the great Southwest. It’s absolutely beautiful and inspires a lot of my work as a writer and designer. Ellen loves trees, green, and deep blue lakes, and we both love the ocean and snow-capped peaks, and Adelaide, when I asked her this question, responded without hesitation: she loves when the mountains are with the sea.

We love it all, and we love everything we’ve not yet seen. There’s so much beauty in the world and we want to experience as much of it as we can. Each place we go teaches us something and inspires us in some way. To feel the wind in one place, and then feel the same wind in another carry with it a different fragrance and weight, to see the same starry sky from the mountains to the desert, to know the wind and the sky from everywhere.

 

Unless specified otherwise, photos are by Kate Oliver.

See more from Kate at birchandpine.co and her Instagram. Also learn more about Kate and Ellen’s business on themoderncaravan.com and follow along to see their current projects on Instagram.

 

Do you dream of taking your life on the road?