Carson & Mel's Adventures in Elsie the 120 Square Foot Trailer

Carson & Mel's Adventures in Elsie the 120 Square Foot Trailer

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Adrienne Breaux
Apr 19, 2016
(Image credit: Carson Vaughan)

Name: Carson, Mel and Costello the Goldendoodle (in Elsie the trailer)
Location: Roving the lower 48 States
Size: 120 square feet
Years lived in: 5 Months

They're both from small towns. Carson is a freelance writer, and Mel has years of experience in PR and marketing and is now an entrepreneur. Together, they spent eight months toiling away at renovating this tiny, 120 square foot 1968 FAN travel trailer. They lovingly call her "Elsie." They share the stylish and surprisingly spacious THOW (tiny house on wheels) with their Goldendoodle Costello and share stories from the road on their blog, Local Color XC.

(Image credit: Carson Vaughan)

I could summarize the story of how two creative halves of an adventurous couple decided to leap from their old lives and renovate and roam in a tiny trailer, but Carson already wrote an article about it for Travel & Leisure. This excerpt from the article appears on the about page of their website:

"We’d spent the majority of our lives in Nebraska, both of us born and raised in towns that made Lincoln—where we first met at the university—feel like Metropolis. That we were still in Nebraska at all was a source of unspoken regret between Mel and me. We loved Nebraska—really, we did—but we’d grown tired of it. The whole state felt like an old rental: no matter how many times we rearranged the furniture, it just didn’t excite us anymore.

At the summit of our malaise, we took a bike ride along the Salt Creek. Several miles in, Mel turned to me and said matter-of-factly, “Let’s buy a camper, and you can write from the road.” I didn’t know how to respond, so I didn’t. We’d talked about it before, renovating an old trailer, traveling more, but it was always hypothetical. “I’m serious,” she said. “What if we just did it? If it’s a mistake, it’s a mistake. We’re still young. No kids. No mortgage. Now’s our chance.”

Advice to live by, whether you're thinking about moving to another city or painting a wall in your house. Follow along this creative couple and adorable dog's journey on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

(Image credit: Carson Vaughan)

Apartment Therapy Survey:

Our Style: Left to our own devices, we gravitate towards different aesthetics. Mel prefers something she likes to call “cozy eclectic,” whereas I lean more toward a “rustic” or “cabin-in-the-woods” feel. Fortunately for us, a curated blend of our personal styles actually works. We end up with spaces that highlight the woodwork but also leave room for Mel’s best thrift store finds and accents of some of our favorite colors.

Inspiration: Both of us are often inspired by the colors, patterns, and flora and fauna found in nature and the rural areas we come from. We’re also inspired by earlier generations; the designs we find printed on our parents high school sweaters, the salt shakers we find in our grandparents’ cupboards, the travel trailers half-hidden in rural shelter belts and waiting for a good renovation. Of course, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t flip through an Anthropologie catalog every now and then.

Favorite Element: Carson’s favorite element is the wooden backsplash, pieced together one board at a time, each board stained a different color. The process gave the final piece a natural, patchwork feel, and gives Elsie a focal point immediately upon entering the trailer.

Mel’s favorite element is the wallpapered ceiling. Because we almost entirely rebuilt the ceiling, we needed to cover all the joints and seems. We used paintable, textured wallpaper that resembles old tin tiles. Without being overbearing, the paper gives the ceiling some dimension, something a little more exciting than a flat white.


Biggest Challenge: When we first pulled Elsie home from Stuart, Iowa after purchasing her from a man we like to call “Craigslist Ray,” we discovered that very little of his promises were true. One of our original deal breakers was functioning utilities: water, electricity, etc. While the electric system was passable, the water system most certainly was not. It took us days to strip out the old copper lines and install new PEX piping. After we’d replaced it all, we realized simple hose clamps weren’t strong enough to keep the joints dry, and then spent another few days replacing the hose clamps with “crimp rings,” which require a special tool to install. We now have running, hot water, but it wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t glamorous.

What Friends Say: Before the renovations, they just laughed, shook their heads, and wished us luck. Once Elsie was complete, friends would step inside and say, “It feels so much bigger than it looks from the outside!” Then they would turn to Mel and say, “It’s adorable.” After that, there’s a lot of, “Will you build me one?”

Biggest Embarrassment: We’d spent more than a year renovating Elsie, but it wasn’t until we’d hit the road and driven from Nebraska to Arizona that we realized our holding tank was basically non-existent. After running water for the dishes just two times, we found water rising up through the shower drain. We ended up with an easy fix and purchased a portable holding tank. Nevertheless, for two people who had spent so much time digging into every nook and cranny of the trailer, we were fairly ashamed we hadn’t caught onto the holding tank situation earlier.

Proudest DIY: It’s hard to choose, considering that we rebuilt nearly every aspect of the trailer. That being said, we’re especially proud of both the fold-up writing desk and the floor cabinet, both of which we built from scratch.

Because we both still work from the road, we knew we were going to need a solid work desk. At the same time, we only have 120-square feet. Eating up that kind of space when we weren’t actually sitting at the desk felt like a waste of space. So we built the desk on hinges, with a swinging support bracket underneath, and when the desk isn’t in use, we simply fold it flat against the wall, instantly increasing our usable floor space. As for the floor cabinet, we needed something to cover up the wheel well. So we built a cabinet right over the top, installed a door on the bottom so we could still access the well, and used the upper portion to shelve books and other odds and ends. The top of the cabinet doubles as extra kitchen counter space, which we always need.

Biggest Indulgence: Our budget for Elsie was basically non-existent, so we really didn’t splurge on anything. That being said, we did remodel certain features of Elsie purely for aesthetic affect. The countertops were originally a simple white Formica with gold flecks, very 60s. It wasn’t terrible, but we wanted to infuse a small industrial vibe into the trailer, so we applied a thin layer of Henry’s Concrete Feathering on both the kitchen and bathroom counters. We love all the tiny imperfections in the concrete, the light and dark spots, and grooves from our trowel and sanding tools. We also built custom pipe lighting from scratch to replace the vintage wall sconces near the bed. The old sconces were charming — in their own way — but we wanted something a little more unique. Our pipe lights use Edison bulbs, which provide a nice soft light, and we built ours with outlets for extra plug-ins.

Best Advice: Carson’s dad, who built houses to pay for optometry school in Chicago, helped guide us through the entire renovation process. At least once a day, he would step away from the work, look it all over and say, “It’s going to look a helluva lot worse before it looks any better.” It was very disheartening—and very true.

Dream Sources: We tried to thrift as many elements as we could, so we spent a considerable amount of time at Habitat for Humanity ReStores and a similar EcoStore in Nebraska. When we weren’t looking for hidden gems there, we scouted ideas and products from Anthropologie, IKEA and Etsy.

Resources

PAINT & COLORS

  • Valspar: Bistro White
  • Stain: Minwax Wood Finish, Dark Walnut
  • Outlets: Rustoleum High Heat Spray Paint, Copper
(Image credit: Carson Vaughan)

ENTRYWAY

  • Coat hooks: Ikea.
  • Screen door: Phifer PetScreen, Black vinyl-coated polyester screen wire.
  • Rug: Menards
(Image credit: Carson Vaughan)

LIVING ROOM/DINETTE AREA

  • Curtains: Threshold Gold/White Shower Curtain
  • Shades: Bright White 75% light blocking shades from Menards
  • Ceiling Wallpaper: allen + roth white strippable non-woven paper preexisted paintable wallpaper.
  • Cushions: Reupholstered by Mel; fabric from JoAnn’s.
  • Wood Tray: Threshold from Target.
(Image credit: Carson Vaughan)

KITCHEN

  • Stove / Oven: Painted with Rustoleum High Heat Spray paint in White and Copper.
  • Floor Cabinet: Handles, Anthropologie.
  • Magnetic spices, knife rack: Ikea.
  • Cabinet trim: Unfinished half-round moulding, Lowe’s.
  • Concrete Countertops: Henry’s Featherweight finish, Home Depot.
(Image credit: Carson Vaughan)

BEDROOM

  • Bedding: Jean comforter and wool blanket, Pottery Barn circa late 90s.
  • Pillow fabric: Nate Berkus for JoAnn’s, Home Decor Print Fabric — Baroda Square Lynwood Calypso.
  • Black & White Pillow: Ikea
  • Pipe lights: Plumbing pipe and electric from Menards. Edison bulbs from Lowe’s.
(Image credit: Carson Vaughan)

BATHROOM

  • Storage: Ikea BYGEL silver rails, wire basket and storage cups
  • Mirror: target.com, Threshold decorative mirror
  • Shower head: Oxygenics BodySpa low flow shower head, brushed nickel.
  • Bathroom door hooks: Ikea.
(Image credit: Carson Vaughan)

OTHER

  • Copper bars: Upcycled from Elsie’s original propane and water piping.
  • Shelving: Built with reclaimed wood, copper bars upcycled from Elsie.

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Thanks, Mel and Carson!

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