Six people. Three years. One Airstream trailer.
That’s life for the Longnecker family: parents Jonathan and Ashley, and kids Adali (12), Jett (11), Jax (8), and Ada (7). Their kitchen table turns into a master bedroom. Their faucet doubles as an outdoor shower in a pinch. The kids’ bunks turn into couches, and the bathroom — ever heard of a composting toilet? It keeps number one and number two separate, and turns your gunk into harmless compost (compoost?).
Their home is 200 square feet in size. The average new construction American home was 2,422 in 2015. But, as Ashley says, “It helps to have a big backyard.”
And a big backyard they have. In the last three years, they’ve traveled over 100,000 miles and visited 42 National Park sites. They’re huge fans of “boondocking,” or RV camping without hookups: one of the reasons they switched to the Airstream, which allows them to stay out in the glorious middle-of-nowhere-nature for days at a time. They homeschool, with the kids often doing their work outside in hammocks they sling from nearby trees.
Most people can’t conceive of living life a la Longnecker. It might be a tiny shiny home, but it’s tiny. That’s a lot of family togetherness, and, well, a lot less stuff. Here in America, we like our stuff. We like our Target runs.
But sometimes, don’t we all want to toss off all the trapping of modern life and just hit the road? Don’t we just want to leave it all behind, take the people we love, and just go? Well, Ashley and Jonathan Longnecker did it. And Ashley Longnecker was nice enough to sit down with Scary Mommy and tell us just how they did it.
Around 2014, they were living in Tennessee and getting discontented with their suburban life. Longnecker says, “We loved having the kids home while we homeschooled them — and we loved that Jonathan could work from home so we were together all the time. But we started to notice that we were spending all our free time cleaning and maintaining the house. We wanted to go on adventures with the kids, but between school, work, meals, and housekeeping it never happened.”
So when someone suggested full-time roadtripping, she was all for it. “I was on board from the very beginning,” she says. “I was like, sold. Jonathan was kind of like, I don’t know.”
But things just clicked into place. “We could spend more time with the kids, experience amazing adventures with them, work less, simplify all our stuff, and even get out of debt,” she says. “There are about 20 reasons we did this, but for us, it was the change in focus. Experiences instead of things. Time instead of busyness. A chance to experience life in a new, exciting way. We did a ton of research and mostly everyone was really, really excited. The kids actually picked out our first RV.” (Eventually they transitioned even smaller to the Airstream.)
So they hit the road. Which meant some serious downsizing: like, serious downsizing. As a mama who can’t pass a Target without coming out with a cartful, I had questions.
“We filled our house up,” Longnecker says. “But we didn’t have as much as most people. We just don’t usually buy stuff we can make. But also we don’t buy a bunch of stuff. It’s not really a thing we do. Every time I see a World Market I do go in, but I don’t buy a lot. I just go in. We just understand we don’t get anything we don’t need.”
And what they do buy has multiple functions, like the kitchen faucet that swivels 180 degrees to become an outdoor shower (I can’t get over the awesomeness of that thing). Longnecker tells us the kids were stuffing treasures under their mattresses, and it was driving her batty. But they just got backpacks, which hang at the end of their beds. They’re not only backpacks — their many pockets also serve as tiny storage containers. Multiple uses.
But with a limited amount of stuff, I still had questions. Laundry questions.“Laundromat,” she says. “Done in an hour and a half. Freaked me out at first, but it’s awesome. Done once a week. We all have two towels. We each have one Turkish towel which are so convenient because they dry so quickly.” She says the only time they had towel issues was in Florida, when the humidity prevented them from drying quickly enough.
Logistics aside, I asked about family togetherness. How do you deal with six people in one Airstream trailer all the time? First, it’s important to understand that the Longnecker fam has always been, well, really close-knit. “We’ve always homeschooled and we’ve always been together all the time. It was just very rare to be without everybody,” Longnecker says, with her husband working at home. “We don’t mind. We just really like it.”
But yes, sometimes the tiny shiny home does get a little too tiny. They are human, after all. “We definitely have our moments,” Longnecker agrees. “But we’re always together and we’re all super introverts. So it’s really easy for us to grab our iPads or listen to a book so we can have some alone time that way. The kids put their headphones on or go in their bed and listen to music or whatever. Usually we’re not inside all the time. So we can go outside and go hike or whatever.”
In fact, hiking is something the Longnecker family does a lot, though they weren’t hikers before they hit the road. In fact, they thought they’d be bikers, which Longnecker says worked great for the East Coast, but once they hit the West, hiking worked much better. “3 miles is standard,” she says. “The most we did as a family was 8 or 9 miles. We would love to work up to more. Ada [age 7] will outhike all of us.”
As a family, they also love to play games (Uno is a fav), and enjoy movie mornings on the weekends. Lest you think they’re completely out of touch, they just finished watching The Office on Netflix, which the kids loved.
Speaking of plugged in, for all the boondocking, this is one wired family. When I asked how the kids got their homeschooling books with limited space and no consistent library, she explained that they had library cards in places they hit up frequently, and download books onto their iPads (ingenious!). Their oldest, Adali, has read over 70 books and counting this year. “I can’t keep up,” she sighs. They also use homeschooling to dive deep into their children’s interests. Adali is an amazing baker. Jett’s a fantastic artist. The kids are getting a different kind of education, and they’re loving every minute of it (okay, maybe not the math all the time).
Don’t think they’re an insular bunch, either, or that their kids are unsocialized hooligans. “Our kids talk to everyone! Especially our youngest who is our most extroverted,” Longnecker says. “It’s really cool that they’re all such different ages but they learn so much from each other. Our kids will sit and talk to adults and talk to them the same way they will talk to other kids.”
And they’ve met so many people on the road, people who share the same interests and values they do. “Even today most of our friends are people we met on the road. It’s that common bond: we understand why we’re doing it.”
These self-proclaimed desert rats (their favorite places include Ajo, Arizona and Trona Pinnacles, CA) do miss a few things from conventional life outside the Airstream, however. For Longnecker, it’s more countertop space, a garden, a clothesline, her woodworking shop. Her husband misses the playroom, where they had their workouts and a strict workout schedule. The kids miss having more space.
Think this sounds awesome? Like this might be the life for you? Longnecker has some advice. “Take the chance. The worst that can happen is that you have to stop and buy another house. You have to know that you have to have a lot of patience. You have to get your sea legs. You have to give yourself patience and grace and understanding.”
Patience, grace, and understanding? Pretty solid life advice, as well.
“Things are gonna go wrong and break and you have to be flexible and laid back about it.”