Macy Miller had by her early 20s accomplished pretty much every dream her parents had for her future, along with the goals she’d set for herself by that point. A brand new Master’s degree in Architecture on her CV guaranteed the path ahead was clear and bright.
Oh, but wait — it didn’t. As many Americans figured out, college degrees (advanced or no) aren’t a golden ticket. Within a few years of graduation, Macy faced the same kind of problems plaguing the country at large: debt, joblessness and foreclosure.
Add to that trifecta the end of a marriage, and the situation for Macy became something that easily could have continued to spiral downward.
Instead, a dream provided the inspiration Macy needed to get her head around her problems by shrinking them. Macy brought that vision to real life, designing and building her own tiny house. You can see it in the 2016 video later in this post, and read about it on Dwell, Huffington Post and several other (at least) places around the internet.
I had this dream about a week ago, it was bad ass! I lived in a tiny little house that had everything I need in it and none of the things I don’t. I woke up and drew up this house…
— Macy Miller, November 2011
Photos courtesy Macy Miller. See Macy’s Tiny House Project: The Beginning here.
Like any well-designed RV of similar size, the 200-square-foot house she went on to build provided ample space for Macy, Great Dane Denver and the other loves of her life she’d soon add to it: partner James Herndon and their children Hazel (now three and a half – don’t forget the half) and Miles (two).
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Today is a big anniversary for me! 6 years ago I bought a flatbed trailer with the intention of building it into a home. Since this day six years ago I built that house, met a pretty rad dude, welcomed my dream dog home (bonus, he's handsone!), paid off all my debts, changed my career built a couple kids and helped build ANOTHER home for the bunch of us to travel in! A lot can happen in 6 years! P.S. glad that our biggest changes these days are the scenery! 😉
To put things in perspective space-wise, Brian and I will move into about 320 square feet, with John Lee – a dog half Denver’s size.
It’s absolutely true that good design maximizes small spaces. If you want a recipe for misery, though, try living tiny while clinging to more than a handful of possessions. In both regards (design and minimalism), James and Macy are ideally suited for living tiny, as well as living with one another.
Of her pre-tiny life, Macy said:
I had the big house. I had all that stuff. It’s just crap. I wasn’t happy. People said I should be very happy. But I wasn’t. Something was missing.
The tiny house sat (somewhat illegally) on part of a lot in Boise, Idaho, not far from where both were born and raised. They’d created a cozy home that enabled them to pay off debt and focus on life rather than its entrapments.
Macy and James lived in a beautiful part of the country, a wide river valley at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. “But –” Macy tells me, “it’s a long time to stay in one place. There are a lot more beautiful parts in this country.”
Taking tiny on the road
Starting soon after they met, James and Macy began talking about “escaping” Boise and traveling around. Perhaps their exploring would lead them to a place that felt a bit more homey than Boise, where they didn’t feel they fit in.
It’d be a welcome bonus to be far enough away to build their own traditions with Hazel and Miles. As it was at the time, Macy and James were dutiful but exhausted adult children, obliged to bring their kids to two, three, even four or five houses every holiday.
The push for nomadic life launched for real around Mother’s Day 2016, when Macy convinced James to kick off their escape plan by buying and “prettying up” a 1966 Aloha travel trailer.
Well, that was the original plan.
As it turned out, the trailer was in such bad shape they had to rip the whole thing apart – down to the flatbed – and completely rebuild it.
“Most people would have probably given up at that point,” says Macy. “We’re stubborn” she adds with a laugh.
It helped that both are architects who, instead of shrinking from a challenge like the rotted Aloha, saw it as a potentially satisfying challenge. Starting nearly from scratch provided the couple with the opportunity to better customize the trailer to fit their family and lifestyle.
If you’re thinking they then built the mack-daddy of all trailers, think again. Here’s what an original Aloha of that vintage looks like.
Unlike the travel trailers most folks seem to go for these days – especially if they’ve got kids and dogs – Macy and James chose a trailer even tinier than their tiny house. As in, only 80 square feet.
The trailer rebuild took a little over a year of working on weekends and around the reality of caring for two small children. Macy says James probably didn’t think she was serious when she proposed the project, but a year after the “let’s get a trailer” proposition, the family pulled out of Boise, ready to see the country.
The original plan was for a year-long road trip to visit as many national parks as possible, “before the powers that be destroy them,” Macy says.
I’m not personally confident in Washington, D.C.’s power to do anything on that grand a scale. But then I also didn’t think we’d elect a reality TV star to run the country, and I have heard proposals for stupendous increases in national parks entrance fees.
Not that my opinion matters, but I’m glad Hazel and Miles – and their mom and dad – are actually out experiencing the country instead of looking at select textbook narratives and images.
As Macy and I talked, the family was camped at Mammoth Cave, their 14th national park. With only five months left out of the year they gave themselves, there’s a whole lot more to see and not much time to see it.
The year-long mission has become more of a moving target than a hard and fast deadline.
Macy turned to a tiny house to help regain control of her life. Both she and James have advanced degrees in a potentially high-paying field. Both have stepped outside the norm as far as how they’re using their expertise to earn a living.
If you wanted to, you could probably make an argument that the system (go to college, use your degree to climb an increasingly lucrative ladder, use proceeds to buy increasingly expensive housing, etc.) let them down.
I ask Macy about this, because it was a recurring theme in the Nomadland book that sparked my interest in profiling RV nomads.
“I definitely don’t feel failed by society. I’m a very fortunate person,” she says. “I don’t even get that sense about the people I meet. If anything, I get that the people that I meet are trying to empower their lives the same way that the people in the tiny house community are.”
Every now and then in their travels they do encounter someone going through hard times. “That’s life,” she says. “You have to roll with it.” For Macy, nomadic life offers a way to more easily do that. It’s an option with the potential to provide anyone with more opportunities than drawbacks.
“I definitely don’t feel its a ‘resorted to this’ situation for us or any of the people that I’ve met,” Macy says.
As we talk, I wonder aloud how it is that everyone Brian and I have talked to about RV life is entranced by our plans, yet journalists like Nomadland author Bruder still paint it in a negative light. Macy mentions a related backlash against millennials, and jokes about people bitching about how “those damn millennials are digital nomads.”
“Because we can be!” she exclaims. “Why wouldn’t we? If someone has the know-how to make it work for them, why wouldn’t they do it?” Macy suggests it’s jealousy.
She could be right, but I wonder if casting aspersions is more of a coping mechanism for a reality RV life detractors don’t want to face.
Macy agrees with those critics about one thing: “We could absolutely make more money sitting in one place, working in an office all day.”
“But,” she adds, “we know enough to know that’s not our goal anymore. I feel enlightened by our life experiences. They’re not anything like how I expected I would want to live.”
What about others who do fall into RV life for economic reasons?
“If you’re intentional about it, it can be really cost effective. If you’re not, you can spend a lot this way.”
Boondocking is the way
Macy and her family live a simpler, more self-sustaining life than most. Their intentional choices paid off in an ability to live on $500 a month.
When she and James rebuilt the trailer, they included pretty much everything they’d need to be self sustaining off grid. That makes it easy to take advantage of free and cheap camping spots that don’t have hookups.
Macy explains how deceptively simple it is to blow your budget on what, in the traditional housing world, equates to rent. Spending $20 for a night at a campground versus $5 to $15 doesn’t seem like much to worry about.
“Do that every night for a month and you’ve totally blown your budget,” she says, adding “It’s really easy to do that when you’re basically paying rent daily.”
Solar and other built-in amenities make off-grid boondocking easy. James and Macy carry a backup generator they can use if the weather limits solar collection. Tiny house living trained them for this; being intentional about power use means they have what they need, when they need it.
The ability and willingness to boondock is key to living comfortably on next to nothing. As long as they have a water source, the family can stay practically anywhere, indefinitely.
Macy jokes “I wish somebody would come out with an app showing where you can find a public water faucet!” (If you’re an app developer, get on it!)
No weirdos here
It’s really simple to boondock, according to Macy, and “it’s not creepy.”
I laugh, because I’ve seen worrywarts post to the big full-time RVer group on Facebook about that very thing. I just shake my head and head for the #boondocking hashtag on Instagram.
Macy says there’s a perception that there are desperate people out in the boonies, making it dangerous to boondock away from everyone.
She couldn’t disagree more.
“First of all, the people we meet in the boonies have been some of the coolest people we’ve ever met. That’s because they’re comfortable enough and educated enough to be able to live by themselves.”
“Creepy people aren’t hanging out in the middle of nowhere,” she says. “They’re hanging out where the people are.”
Boondocking is the best, Macy says emphatically. The best camping spots, the best views of the Tetons – every time she sees a gorgeous photo on another RVer’s Instagram feed, it’s inevitably a shot taken out in the middle of nowhere at one boondocking spot or another.
“You’ll find some of the best people – if you run into anybody – in the boondocks. I don’t know why boondocking gets so…vilified. Like, if you’re a boondocker you’re weird and creepy.”
Macy calls her tiny house “the gateway drug.” That project enabled her to actualize – in a personal way – concepts and processes that before it were mostly theoretical.
James joined Macy partway into the tiny house build; combining their love for projects proved synergistic. The individual energy and enthusiasm each brought to the process was amplified, with beautiful results. In retrospect, it’s no surprise they essentially repeated the process after buying the Aloha.
“I’m really curious [to see] what other projects James and I come up with. We both feed off that energy and each other.”
I’m curious, too!
Even though they have specific destinations on their agenda, James and Macy’s journey is as much about the freedom to live the way they want as it is going where they want.
If you’d like to follow along, Learning the Long Way is the hub of everything Macy and James are doing. From there you can sign up for Macy’s daily nomadic lifestyle tips and get to her Minimotives blog as well as the family’s sweet Instagram feed.