With the days getting shorter and cold weather creeping in, it’s understandable to dream of getting away for a while. For Mel and Carson of Local Color XC, the “getaway” has been a part of their every day since early 2015. Along with their adorable Goldendoodle Costello, the duo completely renovated a vintage trailer affectionally named Elsie and hit the road for a year-plus of adventures. Get to know the modern nomads and their fascinating journey across the US, and see if it doesn’t inspire you to see more of the country.
As a trio that’s hard to pin down, where are you currently parked?
Just last evening, we landed in Carson City, Nevada, fresh off a nearly two week stay visiting family and a few dear friends in Oakland, California. They all had spare rooms, so we’ll admit we lunged at the opportunity to sleep on a real mattress, and in a room where the floor doesn’t shake when you walk on it. Eventually, however, it was time to move on. We had originally planned to hit Los Angeles after the Bay Area, but after studying the map a bit more, and looking at our own timeline, we decided it made more sense to cut west.
In the spirit of full disclosure, we should also admit that here in Carson City, we’re parked in a private RV park owned by a casino. It’s the first private park we’ve stayed in on our grand adventure. We prefer public parks, both because we’re huge supporters of the state and national parks system—and the idea of nature as a public necessity—because they’re generally much cheaper. Once we started looking at our options in Nevada, we found that many of the state parks had already closed for the season or don’t feature RV hookups like water and electricity. Eventually we found this private park for just $27 a night, which includes free wifi (a major perk we almost never count on) and—if we’re being honest—restroom facilities that far exceed most state parks.
Of course you couldn’t make the trip without Elsie the trailer. Is tiny living what you expected?
Yes, and no. Living in Elsie has definitely given us the mobility we needed to travel the country, and to do it without hotel/motel fees that would have priced us out almost immediately. We had also hoped that living tiny would push us to get outside more often, to live our lives in a more public manner, and I think we’ve achieved that. We often say that living tiny hasn’t been that difficult logistically speaking. We’ve grown comfortable with downsizing and living off just the essentials.
The harder part about a small space is learning how and when to give each other privacy. I would guess that Mel and I are more comfortable than most couples spending so much time together, but even then, we’ve definitely crossed that threshold more times than we can count. We still haven’t mastered this, but we’re getting better at saying, “Hey, I love you, but I need to go on this walk by myself,” or “Hey, let’s work in separate spaces until dinner.” Even that is more difficult than it sounds. Keep in mind we’re exploring new territory almost every day, so for one of us to go somewhere alone, it means the other person is seeing just a little bit less, and nobody likes that thought.
We were never so naive as to think living in a 16-foot trailer for a year would be easy. That being said, when Elsie did need repairs, they weren’t repairs we had anticipated. We spent so much time fully renovating the inside of the trailer that exterior problems have really thrown us into a tailspin. A broken leaf spring in Virginia left us stranded in a state park for three or four days longer than we intended. Fixing it ourselves wasn’t an option, though god knows we tried. We’ve also blown a few tires, once on the interstate. I’m proud to say we’re both now competent enough to jack up the trailer and replace the tires ourselves, but the first time we had a blowout—that wasn’t the case. In other words, there’s been a learning curve towing a nearly 50-year-old trailer across the country.
If you could go back to before the renovation started, what steps or failed attempts would you do differently?
We’re still so happy with almost all of the renovations we made to the inside of the trailer. But if we were going to re-start this adventure, we’d take Elsie into a trailer repair shop and have them inspect the undercarriage. As I stated earlier, we had some spring issues with Elsie earlier in our trip, and I think they probably could have been avoided if we’d spent more time inspecting the chassis. Even now, our trailer rests a bit heavier on one side than the other. It doesn’t affect the way she pulls, and we can overcorrect the tilt with our jacks, but we’re both perfectionists at times, and noticing that tilt sometimes drives us crazy. We’ll be fixing that immediately after the trip is over.
Beyond that, I think we’d probably replace a few small parts at the get-go. We tried our best to re-use smaller parts, like door handles, light switches, etc. For the most part that’s worked out okay. But one by one, the springs on the old cabinet latches have broken, and some of the window cranks have split. They’ve been easy replacements, but swapping them all out in the beginning would have been the more pragmatic move.
What were some local shops that really stood out to you on your travels?
We love this question, because exploring cities and small towns, and sussing out the best restaurants, bars, bookstores and more is what has really made this trip a blast. In terms of bars, we were giddy over our “discovery” of both The Owl Bar in downtown Baltimore, Maryland and in the opposite direction (literally and metaphorically), The Occidental Saloon, part of The Occidental Hotel, in small-town Buffalo, Wyoming. For restaurants, we’ve never had better Mexican food than Casa de Suenos in Tularosa, New Mexico. If you’re into spicy food, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, Tennessee is insane. And if you’re ever in Savannah, Georgia, we’ll be sincerely offended if you don’t eat Zunzi’s takeout at least twice. We’re talking perfectly grilled sausages, chicken, mashed potatoes and their signature sauce—it’s to die for.
We’ve hit a number of stellar bookstores on this trip. Don’t miss Oxford, Mississippi’s famous Square Books, or Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana, or—if you’re ready to kill an entire afternoon—Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. You can’t go wrong with any of these.
You’re planning your last meal. Which restaurant that you visited would be the go-to?
Casa de Suenos. We’ve eaten at plenty of great restaurants on this trip, but Casa de Suenos made eating food a holy experience.
“[When we travel] we almost always find the highest point in the city, whether that’s a natural hill or mountain, or the viewing deck from a skyscraper. Take any chance you can to view your new surroundings from a different angle.”
I’m sure Costello has some opinions of his own. For our fellow traveling pet owners, which spots did he seem to really enjoy?
Costello is a big fan of any park with a lake or stream in it. He loved Panther Creek State Park in Tennessee, where he raced through the trees and swam for hours in the green waters of Cherokee Lake. He also loved White Sands, New Mexico, where he was allowed to run freely and chase his owners while they sled down the sand dunes. Oh, and Lake Umbagog in New Hampshire. He wore his life jacket and swam behind our canoe for hours.
How would you advise people to get to know true local flavor, rather than the standard tourist stops?
We actually don’t recommend people ignore the standard tourist stops. In fact, we often spend a day knocking out the things we’re “supposed” to see. Why? Well, for starters, most of those places became popular for a reason. But second, who wants to come home after visiting New York for the first time and say, “Oh, the Statue of Liberty? Never seen it.” That being said, we’re a huge fan of doing our own thing. One standard practice of ours is to spend at least one day walking the streets of a new city. There’s something about walking a city that gives you a much better feeling for a place than taking public transportation or Uber. We almost always find the highest point in the city, whether that’s a natural hill or mountain, or the viewing deck from a skyscraper. Take any chance you can to view your new surroundings from a different angle. Being sober helps, but hey, don’t ignore the dive bars. But the most important part is to ask for suggestions from people who actually live there. Don’t rely on TripAdvisor or Yelp. Ask your waiter or waitress where they would eat if they had one last night in the city. Ask the ticket taker at the movie theater where he’d go to see a live show. Locals know best.
After seeing it so much of America, if you could settle down anywhere in the country, where would it be and why?
We ask ourselves this question every day, though we’re still not nearly as close to an answer as we’d like. But we can tell you this: We loved Baltimore. We loved Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We loved Portland, Oregon. We’ve always loved Brooklyn, New York, and with so many friends in Chicago, Illinois—it’s impossible not to have a good time. The problem is that we could also envision a quieter life in a place like Bozeman or Buffalo, Wyoming. I don’t think the latter two are very realistic options for us, but when life gets hectic, they always stand out.
Any other advice for aspiring nomads?
Be prepared to ditch your itinerary. If you’re camping in an RV, you can get away with spontaneity in the winter, but start planning ahead when the weather warms up or you’ll be stuck in more Wal-Mart parking lots than you’d probably prefer. Save money. Make your own sandwiches before hitting the road. Don’t skip an oil change. Bring a space heater. Don’t park beneath street lights. Learn how to change a tire. Drink coffee. Drink beer. Enjoy your life. Take time to enjoy your life. Go ahead and Instagram. Then put your phone down and take a mental picture just for yourself.