Off the Path Fall 2015

Living in less than 98 square feet

Alumni join tiny house movement to support careers, strengthen relationships

by Michele Coffill
photos by Bernadine Carey-Tucker
video by Tony Packer

Two people and two dogs are traveling the country, coexisting in 98 square feet of living space.

On some nights their backyard has been the vast openness of the Yukon Territory in northwest Canada, other nights it was Bridge Street in downtown Grand Rapids.

Kelly Tousley, ’11, and Curtiss O’Rorke Stedman joined the tiny house movement in June after purchasing a utility trailer and outfitting it for adventure. They took their dogs and some of their belongings and left their Juneau, Alaska, home in June to hit the road to build O’Rorke Stedman’s rising music career.

Also in June but in the southwest U.S., Kristin Connolly Schillaci, ’05, and Tony Schillaci, ’06, returned to Santa Fe, New Mexico, after spending a year on the road living in an 18-footlong, 1980 Coachman trailer. They traveled 25,000 miles to 30 juried art shows in 35 states to sell Kristin’s fine art photographs. They also were on the road with two big dogs.

The Schillacis

Kristin, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in photography, said the couple first talked about traveling the country two years ago when they were backpacking in the Grand Canyon.

“We were at the bottom of the canyon for three nights and it was the happiest we had been in years,” she said. “Everything we needed was on our backs. We thought, ‘Something needs to change.’”

The tiny house movement, while glamorized by television networks like HGTV, is more than the romantic notion of traveling the country in a trailer or camper. At its root is the need to downsize lifestyles, whether for economic reasons or environmental concerns. For these two couples, it meant learning to live with less to support a career.

Tony, 06, and Kristin, 05, Schillaci with their trailer and dogs

Tony, ’06, and Kristin, ’05, Schillaci traveled with their dogs to 35 states last year to sell Kristin’s artwork.
photo courtesy of Kristin Connolly Schillaci

Tony graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music education. He worked for seven years as the band director at Santa Fe High School; Kristin was a part owner of a Santa Fe print shop. “I was helping other people with their artwork but couldn’t find the time to support my own photography,” she said.

Spending each weekend traveling in the southwest to an art show became the norm, albeit a tiring routine for them. Tony said he would come home from football games on Friday nights to help Kristin set up for a show, return on Saturdays to be with his band for regional competitions, then help Kristin tear down on Sundays.

“We were like two ships passing in the night,” she said.

South from Alaska

After Tousley graduated with a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science, she moved with O’Rorke Stedman to Alaska, where he landed a teaching job after graduating from Northern Michigan University. Tousley found work as a case manager for children with disabilities. She said they were both happy with their careers, but the idea that O’Rorke Stedman’s (who performs as Cousin Curtiss) music could be more than weekend gigs at bars kept coming to the front burner. He brings a unique style of Americana and blues to his performances and has produced four albums.

“We constantly asked ourselves, ‘How do we travel and make a living doing it?’” Tousley said.

After two years of planning, they bought a utility trailer from a Craigslist posting and began a yearlong process to convert it to a house. They watched a lot of YouTube videos and learned by trial-and-error.

The trailer’s walls are insulated and it has two windows, a solar-powered generator and a shower but without running water (they use a camp shower). There is a kitchenette and desk, the couch folds out to a queen bed (dog beds are stored in the back of the truck, but typically one or both dogs sleep with them). Tousley took ideas from Pinterest to help fashion wall storage. There is a two-tank toilet but she cautioned it’s only for urine.

After traveling from Alaska to Michigan to Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Florida and Alabama, they will spend the late fall on tour in Colorado. “By doing this, we’re able to pepper areas and return to a venue more than once, hopefully creating a snowball effect,” he said.

Before leaving Alaska, Tousley earned a master’s degree in early childhood special education. She said that was part of the plan. “We tell people who want to do what we’re doing to do it but have a backup plan. I have a master’s degree and Curtiss can return to teaching,” she said.

Kelly Tousley, 11, and Curtiss ORorke Stedman with their trailer and dogs

Kelly Tousley, ’11, and Curtiss O’Rorke Stedman visited Grand Rapids in August. They left Alaska in June after outfitting a utility trailer into a tiny house.

“We’re able to follow our passion.”

Follow their blog or like them on Facebook at “Pay Gas, Not Rent.”

Truck and trailer

Tousley and O’Rorke Stedman's tiny home.

Returning home

The Schillacis said it was an interesting transition back to Santa Fe. “After living in 90 square feet, I feel weird being back in our house,” Kristin said. They have since rented a smaller home and have renters living in their first house.

A year on the road has boosted her creativity and confidence. “I’m a fine art photographer, that’s what I went to school for,” Kristin said. “My confidence in my body of artwork has deepened.”

Tony, too, said his travel experiences will aid him greatly in his new job as an elementary school music teacher.

“My perspective and view of the world has changed,” he said. “I stepped away from life to think more about it in a different way and to find out what’s important to me.”

Both couples said their relationships strengthened.

“People would ask us if we got sick of each other, but we were so content,” Kristin said. “We were so busy in our previous life, what better option than to explore the country with the best assistant at art fairs.

“Our relationship is much stronger. Out in the world, we had a very happy dependency.”

Page last modified November 2, 2015