How one couple downsized to 200 square feet — and why they love it 

Life, streamlined

It seems that no one is immune to junk drawers. Of course, when Heather Mitchell shows off hers, it's just a few-inch section tucked at the front of a well-defined utensil area.

But in this thoughtfully organized, 200-square-foot Airstream camper that she and her partner Todd Riecks call home, it's still somehow comforting to see a pack of gum, an iPod Shuffle, and other random bits and pieces of life strewn about.

They also have a small shed on their site for outdoor gear, seasonal clothing, a KitchenAid mixer and other miscellaneous cookware — Mitchell's a natural foods chef — as well as an off-site storage unit. But the couple's decided it's time to stop paying rent on the unit.

"We've finally gotten to that point where we're like, 'This is stupid, you know,'" Mitchell says. "We don't need this stuff."

"We go there, literally, twice a year max," Riecks adds. "But it's like a big bin of Christmas decorations that my mom passed down to me and her mom passed down to her ... stuff you become attached to ... the whole process has been an overwhelmingly liberating experience. I recommend it to everybody. Not to live in a trailer necessarily, but downsizing is so fantastic. Get rid of stuff, if you have too much. We're happy where we're at right now, but yeah, the storage unit is next."

Not so crazy

The two haven't always lived in such tight quarters. Originally from Ohio, they moved to Manitou Springs in 2006 after Riecks finished his veterinary residency.

"I basically went from making peanuts to all of a sudden having a salary," the 40-year-old Riecks says. So when they fell in love with a 2,700-square-foot, brand-new-build home, they went for it, even though financially it "pushed their limits."

"It's a ridiculously nice house — not bragging or anything — [but] it's a very nice, cool set-up, rooftop deck, and two other decks to choose from. River that runs behind it." And it was great for his two daughters, who live in Ohio with their mom but visit regularly.

"But I don't know," he says, pausing. "We started joking around about it, was it three years ago now? 2010? That summer. ... that we were gonna move into a trailer."

"We for sure knew we wanted to get out of the house," Mitchell, 38, explains, "because we travel quite a bit and it was a waste of our money."

As it happens, Riecks, an orthopedic and neuroveterinary surgeon, fixed the cat of the woman who owns the Crystal Kangaroo Campground, just a few blocks from their house. He told her their "crazy" idea. She didn't think it was so crazy and invited them to see the property, where Riecks says about 80 percent of the campers are permanent or repetitive seasonals. In one visit, the couple knew they were moving.

It took them a full year to sell the house. During that time they researched campers and settled on an Airstream they found for sale in Dallas. It took them two weeks to move out of the house — fitting about 10 percent of their original belongings into the trailer and another 10 percent into the storage unit — and to hold a garage sale. Which, as Riecks says, turned into giving everything else away. "We did pretty good," he says, laughing. "Not at making money, but of getting rid of stuff."

Making it work

Naturally, there are some drawbacks to living in a 200-square-foot camper.

If you want to invite people over, you either can't include more than a handful of friends or, as Mitchell says, you must have a Plan B in case the weather's crummy and the patio isn't usable.

Training those guests to use the toilet might be a little awkward, but important since it's waterless and needs to be worked like a ship's loo. (Even those with weak stomachs have to be able to empty and flush out black-water tanks every few days.)

Also, sometimes your friends don't actually fit in an Airstream. "We're small people, so it makes a huge difference," Riecks says. "When I take a shower, I bump my elbows and knees regularly. Every day. And it used to be funny at first, but now it's just normal."

And it's not just friends who don't fit. "You know how some folks have a water glass and a wine glass and a cocktail glass and a martini glass? Our glasses are the same for everything. Which sounds silly, but you can drink vodka in there. And water." (They do, however, have an additional two mugs for coffee.)

They both say their day-to-day is like a dance.

As Riecks describes, "Only one person can get ready at a time. That's all there is to it. I do something else while Heather gets ready. Then we switch. I mean that's just an example of all-day, every day, that someone has to be at the other end of the trailer.

"But the sleeping arrangements are just like anybody else's. I mean, it's a double [bed] — maybe some people have a king, but we've always been in a smaller bed. And then that couch, we live on, basically. There's no table, so we eat on our laps or on TV trays. The beauty of it is the summer. When it's summer in Colorado, we're outside 90 percent of the time, if it's not raining. We eat out here. Heather does her office work out here whenever she can.

"It's been hot this summer, though, that's been a bugger."

Finally, if you're a shoe person, you may be challenged.

"I think we have as many shoes as anybody else," Riecks says. "But the point is, you can't get any more shoes. When you need a new pair, you gotta get rid of another."

On the move

The couple has been living full-time now in the Airstream for about three years. And perhaps the most surprising thing is that while a desire to travel is one of the main reasons they moved into the trailer, the Airstream itself doesn't go anywhere: "We haven't pulled it since the day we moved in," Riecks says.

Instead, they fly to maximize their time at their assorted destinations.

"In the past year we've been to Mexico, Ohio, Kentucky, Atlanta, California, Costa Rica. We're going to the boundary waters of Minnesota in two weeks. Chicago as well, twice. So it's great. I mean, flying around's expensive, but that's where we decided to put our money. With still plenty to save."

Or to use for other bills.

"I had a huge student loan debt," Riecks says, "so when we moved out of that house, we just pushed our mortgage payment, which was $3,200 a month ... towards my loans."

"In two years," Mitchell says, "we paid off a total of $230,000 worth of debt."

"All because of living in here," Riecks adds, explaining that their monthly fees now for their campsite, electric, water, trash and sewage total about $500.

Mitchell emphasizes that the Airstream itself was pricier than many out there, and that for someone considering this lifestyle, there are larger and less-expensive campers available. But having a minimal carbon footprint, and the opportunity to live consciously, were key for them.

"I think it makes it more tolerable," Riecks says, "to know that we're achieving these personal goals that we had."

Which includes a very specific future. Riecks plans to retire at 50, which this lifestyle is enabling. At that point, the two intend to "roll around a bit" in the Airstream, visiting anywhere in North America with an RV park nearby.

Until then, they can settle back with their border terrier puppy — yes, they have a dog and fit in a small kennel for him — drink some local spring water and gaze out at what one friend, Riecks says, calls "the best view in the 'tou.

"We never complain about the view."


Pot Air Balloon

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