Is living in an Airstream a bad idea?

So shiny!

I enjoyed the recent “Life’s Not Perfect” post in Melanie’s blog, “A Small Life.” It made us smile.

We like beautiful Airstream photographs. We like the cheerful stories. But like Melanie I think they offer a rather stylized perspective. Perfectly manicured moments.

That’s to be expected of course. I suspect there is an element of affirmation taking place.

Plus, who wants to hear bad? The power of positive thinking! Fair enough I suppose. But I think there is also joy to be found in the shared experience and struggle of real life, with all its warts.

A year ago today we bought an Airstream. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It was.

But in contrarian form, in honor of the first anniversary of our Airstream purchase, I’ll tackle the question, “is living in an Airstream a bad idea?”

One. Campgrounds are dreadful.

We have talked about this before. We created a naive and fantastical dream where every day resembled living in a National Forest with birds singing and Bambi and tame bears. And a beach. But with full hookups. In Kansas.

It’s not like that. There are shirtless people and biting insects.

Two. Airstreams aren’t actually very good.

I am convinced our Airstream is the most unreliable, poorly built thing we have ever purchased. Hyperbole? Think about it. Most of the things we buy were made by machines. They are uniformly produced.

An Airstream is made by people who bang things together and screw stuff in by hand. And make no mistake, our Airstream was not built by a group of Swiss watchmakers painstakingly attaching the value of their family’s heritage to the quality of their craftsmanship. This is a shed on wheels built quickly in time before beer o’clock.

I never thought of myself as handy – you know, as someone who could fix a toilet. Yet over time I have become a person who fixes things in uncomfortable settings. I have downloaded and filed away plumbing diagrams. I keep bolts on hand. There’s one in my pocket now.

“Not me,” you say, “I’ll have professionals fix it.” I’m with you. Except when there aren’t any around, which is most of the time, and when you realize what a PITA it is to leave your house at a dealer for a few days.

So if you are, like us, an owner of a new Airstream, find some communion knowing that it’s not just you. You are sharing the experience with hundreds of others who have dropped a lot of money on a fashionable thing that is, well, really quite awful and depreciating rapidly. Remember, a lot of people buy boats too.

For an equally uplifting perspective on this, I recommend reading this entertaining opinion from Robert Platt Bell, author of the fantastic Living Stingy blog. “I love the Airstream, in concept. But like an old wooden boat, I will let others buy them and suffer, and admire them from a distance instead.”

The good news is Airstreams are shiny, so we can still take nice pictures of it.

Now with the acceptance that your coveted do-bob is actually depreciating junk comes powerful and liberating joy. We have discovered, finally, that we cannot buy happiness. The photograph of happy people running around an Airstream with their kayaks is not an experience for sale.

We make our experiences, often randomly, and mostly obliquely. Your Airstream provides a new context for living. Its flaws don’t matter one little bit. Remember why you bought it. Do those things.

And no, you can’t have your money back and yes, you still need to make your payments.

Three. Working is even more stressful.

There are two parts to this.

The first is that work is less stressful because our cost of living has reduced substantially. The dependency on work for survival has reduced. So the consequences of working, or not, are different. This has had real implications for our quality of life and on the quality of work produced. Work produced with dependency diminished is better work.

Unfortunately the second part is that it’s now hard work to do work. If you have a real job job (note – we do not advocate real job jobs at all) you need to be in certain places at certain times. Initially we tried to do this by traveling with our Airstream. We quickly burned out with day after day of driving. The stress was compounded by needing to fix broken things while trying to get to business meetings in a certain place at a certain time.

More trivially but importantly, internet and cell phone availability are not what we assumed. We assumed these things were effectively ubiquitous outside of the Northwest Territories. They are not. Not at all. So we have had to to schedule travel around work and schedule work around internet availability. This is complex, generally unworkable, and therefore stressful.

These practical limitations also apply to community involvement, like volunteering.

Four. Laundry is a drag.

Nobody likes doing laundry.

But what came to mind as streamer_j described her visit to a laundromat in Colorado Springs was the bar scene in Venusville – the red light district in Schwarzenegger’s “Total Recall.” Edgy at first but rapidly unsavory.


Five. Dishes are a drag.

streamer_j complains about this. I think she over states the problem and dishwashers are over-stated as a solution.

Insert from streamer_j: streamer_a has done the dishes approximately 2 times in a year. He should have no “statements” on the matter.

Six. Dirt is a drag.

“Cleaning must only take two minutes.” Sure, but we clean all the time. Small space, dog that sheds, bad.

I refer to Robert’s blog once again, “Camping should be about camping, not keeping some talisman of an icon in perfect condition all the time. When you worry about tracking dirt into your camper, maybe it is time to give up on camping. I’m just saying….”

Seven. Seasons.

The Airstream is generally regarded as a three season trailer. Two of the three are Spring and Fall. But we can’t figure out what the third is supposed to be. It can’t really deal with Winter or Summer.

Despite producing a racket that would mask a nearby event of Krakatoan proportions, the Airstream cannot stay even moderately cool in summer. Nor can the fridge.

In winter, the Airstream does a reasonable job of keeping the living area warm. We don’t mind that it consumes a lot of propane – it does stay warm in our tests down to -17F. However, plumbing does not work at those temperatures. We can get water to the Airstream using a heated hose and faucet. We can also leave the grey open and generally the water will flow out without freezing. But we can’t get black water out and the interior pipes freeze. Last winter we ended up with ludicrous but effective skirting.

Realistically we’re keeping it on the fairway between 30F and a cloudy 80F.

Without any effort (aside from the heated hose) we can take overnight lows down to the mid-20s provided we get above 32F for a good portion of the day.

Above 80F and sunshine you’re in for a hot day. Worse, a hot night. Fans help. Eat the stuff in your fridge quickly.

We think with a composting toilet we could solve the black water problem which would get us down to 0F before we’d start having insurmountable interior pipe issues (then we’re back into skirting).

Of course if we didn’t have to work (problem three), we would encounter newfound joy in harmony with nature, following the seasons, the wind, humidity and elevation to be always in the right place at the right time. Summers at elevation, winters by the beach. The seasons problem is obviously user error. We’re doing it wrong.

You get it. For at least half the year weather is an issue.

Eight. Goods and services

When you live in an Airstream, visiting the doctor, dentist and finding things is more difficult. Not impossible. Just more difficult. That should be obvious.

And so that broadly wraps it up. Eight reasons why we think living in an Airstream is a bad idea.

Pessimistic? Quite the opposite. These problems are awesome! An order of magnitude fewer and less substantial than the problems we managed before we lived in an Airstream. If doing dishes is in your top eight list of problems, you’ve got something going for you.

Stream on.

– Anthony, Dauphin Island, Alabama

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