Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Tiny House Thing: My Journey to Memphis and Back

As I'm sitting here, it seems a little odd that I haven't said anything about my tepid tiny house interest until now; then again, I haven't said much of anything on here lately. Sorry about that. If you don't know what the whole "tiny house" thing is about, I'll boil it down to one sentence. People around the world are simplifying their lives, ditching their debt and moving into tiny rent / mortgage free houses. Some of them look totally rad. There are some real master designers / builders (two very different things) out there and you can quickly lose an hour clicking through pictures of the amazing little houses on the internet. A few builders out there are selling these things, like this guy Joe in Tennesse, but it seems most people are interested in making their own; which is how I found myself in Memphis last weekend with a shaved ice trailer behind my truck.

It all started when I stumbled across this poster on the internet:
They had me with the art work. I fell victim to their ultra-slick ad campaign and knew I had to go.

I could write a short story, actually a long story, about the perilous adventures I experienced en route and the long list of amazing, interesting, funny, talented new friends I made, but as my wife informed me late last night, I would probably "sound like the geeky kid that won't shut up about summer camp". I'll stick to what pictures I managed to snap and a few I've robbed off the internet.

I had some more of these barn shots on my phone, but my daughter Wyoming lost that, so I only have this one salvaged Facebook picture.

This is my first time seeing the Shaved Ice Shack in natural light. We pulled it out of the barn two nights before I left for Memphis. I spend many, many hours on these projects just looking and thinking.

This angle helps you see how the "ribs" of the shack are bolted directly to the solid metal frame.

7PM, Thursday night. I'm supposed to be in Memphis, allegedly 10 hours away, by lunchtime the next day. I'm still cool and collected at this point.

The quickest and easiest way to get the shack onto the big trailer (I wasn't about to make the Shack's maiden voyage a 1,200 mile test drive) was to hook it to my buddy Jon's Suburban and back it on to my trailer. I rode the back wheels of my truck onto a "ramp" to tilt the big trailer down, it worked astonishingly smoothly.

Up until this point, I've only been able to imagine what the interior would look like. Building without plans means sometimes it takes weeks worth of work before I can even begin to glimpse the finished product, at which point the nervous puking gradually begins to subside.

I left home around 1:30AM and stopped to sleep in this Lowe's parking lot at about 5AM. I had put the door on in the dark before I left. I picked up a little handsaw and some lag screws to put my sign on when they opened. I cut the little "keystone" pieces for the top of the trim by hand in the parking lot and got some groceries at Wal-Mart before heading back out.
Luckily this tire blew out within sight of a truck stop somewhere past Knoxville. My spare somehow had a hole in it, so I had to plug and fill it at the truck stop. Of course the farm jack I always travel with broke the day before, so I had to roll the trailer up onto another makeshift ram to swap the rear tire.
Yeah... again, this time in Nashville just before dark. This is Kavi, who I tried haggling in to a trade deal for two used tires. If it weren't for the torrential downpour that opened up just as he started to jack my trailer (seconds after he had locked up his used tire shop for the day) I think he might have gone for it. I could tell he enjoyed a good sport barter.
The next few pictures I took from Kent Griswold's very popular and very awesome Tiny House Blog, where you can go for more pictures of the weekend. I knew of the blog but had no idea who he was until the end of the last day, we spent a good while talking. He's a great guy and was really open and helpful. Anyone else with pictures from this thing, please send them to me or post them and tag me or however that works.

Over my shoulder is Carter from Colorado, who does taxidermy and some really creative wood sculpture stuff. The yellow shirt guy is Robert from Kan-tuck, who just got in to chainsaw milling, which I'm jealous of.

Carrie's ridin' Ole Shavey, Robert's figuring out how to finesse the froe (which is what the old tool is called, though you could say the same for his facial hair), Tim (in the white shirt) took a few blocks of white oak with him back to Maine to try this all out and also sings and plays guitar like Damien Rice (much respect), I forgot blue shirt beardy guy's name but he can shred some acoustic guitar leads and the guy with the light blue shirt way back there is Richard, who is so nice and soft-spoken you feel exactly like you're with Mr. Rogers, except he wields a razor-sharp wit for corny word puns with devastating force.

Now these two guys almost make me want to move to Milwaukee. I spent the first half of the day trying to figure them out, I thought they might have been some vagabond street buskers, then it switched to father and son gypsy clan, the truth is even cooler. Jon (standing next to me) is Michael's (in the door way) kind-of boss and an old punk rocker that will always be young at heart. They design and build the architectural displays at Urban Outfitter's. Jon is the most genuinely enthusiastic, larger-than-life character I've met in a really long time. Michael is laid back and mild mannered, but he has a ferocious old soul. Aside from being a fantastic woodworker at the age of 21, he is a profoundly gifted songwriter that ought to be on tour right now. Watch this video of him playing one of his songs in an old Milwaukee warehouse.

Wait F.W., you already showed us these. Nope. About ten minutes after I left Sunday night, BOOM!, trailer tire #3. I put the gimpy treadless tire I have from Nashville back on, in the dark and go back to Joe's house to see if I can maybe buy an old junk tire off of him or something.

In the hour between my departure from and return to the workshop grounds, the handful of people left mingling and packing up when I left had completely disappeared. The front door at the big house was wide open, but no one answered, same for the little house in the back. It was a little eerie. I got the truck turned around and was heading out when I caught Joe's dad coming home with groceries. He was super cool and told me to just grab something from their stack of old tires by the barn. I found one already mounted that looked like it might hold air and headed for a little country gas station off the highway.

After talking with Perry, the gas station attendant for half an hour about the Mennonite builders, and his grandbaby's swimming pool, and the big shed his friend built and almost got someone to transport when he moved but wound up leaving it in the contract for less money than he had into it, I was finally able to get to the air pump and fill up that replacement tire. It was now at least 10:00PM, or 9:00PM, the time change had me tricked the whole time. Just as I was setting up my third set of makeshift board ramps on this trip, this 17 year old kid named Connor pulled in to the empty parking and asked if he could use my phone, to which I replied, "sure man." I got back to business and Connor returned the phone after a minute or two, then asked if I wouldn't mind staying with him for just a few minutes in case one of his parents called him back. His car had broken down and his phone was dead. I told him I had to change my tire anyway, so it was no big deal. We took a look under the hood of his car too, I think maybe the oil pump went out. Anyway, he let me use his jack. I showed him how to plug a puncture hole in a tire, and we had a nice little visit while I got everything squared away. Connor politely replied, "Yes Sir" to almost everything I said and I was almost taken back by his manners. I was going to give him a ride home, but someone finally called just before it was time to go. After he got home, I received this text message from him, "Hey FW it's Connor, I just wanted to let you know I'm home safe and that I appreciate your help, just so I don't worry too much, could you just send me a message letting me know when you're safe in Knoxville, and then back home with your family? I'll be praying for you the whole way."

I had noticed the new tire was a little wonky within the first 5 seconds of driving, the rim was probably bent, because it rattled the whole trailer and the truck along with it. There wasn't anything I could really do at that point, so I just rolled on and hoped for the best. After another long night in the truck, I made it to Knoxville by morning to meet with a new client and made it safely home by late afternoon.



P.S., I came home to some terrible news. The Kohl Family Farm, a local butt-bustin' organic farming family who I've mentioned in the past suffered a terrible and tragic loss to over half of their dairy goat herd in one night. Click here to read more and help them out. They deserve it and there's an important message for anyone into self-sustainability.
Brinn took this picture last year of Spencer Kohl and his daughter Meredith on their farm near our home.


  1. What a crazy adventure F.W. One day Rob and I want you to build us a tiny house! :) when we have land that is!

  2. I hate that I love when everything goes wrong on your trips. It makes for a good read though.