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TREND OF THE FUTURE: Couple hits the road for open-ended travel

Photo by Carolyn Bahm
Just under 200 square feet of living and storage space has enough elbow room for two when it's planned well. Ross Pennington and Sheena Henry say they love traveling in their tiny home with their two dogs.

Ross Pennington and Sheena Henry are young professionals who could work almost anywhere, so they poured their dreams into a mobile lifestyle.

And they pack light, even though they bring their whole house with them.

The two have what’s popularly called a “tiny house” pulled behind their truck. It’s just under 200 square feet, but inside it has the feel of a much larger space. A seven-foot glass-paned garage door serves as a bright wall of windows and as the roll-up door to their fold-down patio.

One loft contains a king-sized bed, and the other is a compact closet. The main floor includes an efficiency kitchen with more storage space than some apartments, a 36-inch farmhouse sink and an expansive fridge. The home also holds a mini living room with a recliner and chair, a place to hang Ross’s guitar, and a sliding barn-style door that hides a bathroom.

The bathroom has room for a combined washer/dryer, a composting toilet, a shower and built-in shelves for toiletries and towels. The part of the tiny house that extends over the bed of their truck even has room to store their bikes and other outdoor gear.

It’s all the comforts of home.

The two can live totally off the grid with their 2,000-watt rooftop solar array, and their 110-gallon water catchment system stores enough purified rainwater for all their cleaning and drinking needs.

Photo by Carolyn Bahm Behind Sheena and Ross, a glass-paned garage door slides up to let their living room open onto a small deck. Hooks on the edge of the door give Ross space to hang his hammock when he wants to be somewhere inbetween, relaxing or strumming his guitar. The big-screen TV at the top left can be adjusted for viewing from the living room or the bedroom loft.

Photo by Carolyn Bahm
Behind Sheena and Ross, a glass-paned garage door slides up to let their living room open onto a small deck. Hooks on the edge of the door give Ross space to hang his hammock when he wants to be somewhere inbetween, relaxing or strumming his guitar. The big-screen TV at the top left can be adjusted for viewing from the living room or the bedroom loft.

The two were visiting family in the Bartlett/ Arlington area this weekend and agreed to talk about the tiny house lifestyle.

Both are certified registered nurse anesthetists, and they work just enough to keep their licensures current, about three months per year. They plan ahead to work for a few weeks at hospitals or clinics that have job shares or need vacation coverage, and then they move on to the next place that calls to them.

Their work was part of what convinced them to seize the day and hit the road. Henry said they work in operating rooms and see aging people who are getting knees and hips replaced. Many people plan to travel and see the country when they retire, only to find that they can’t comfortably walk to do anything.

“We know what’s coming,” she said. “We know we’re going to have the hips and knees. That’s just part of life at this point. But we wanted to go now, because we love go to hiking and kayaking and be outside. So we decided we needed to do it while we were young enough to do it.”

One of the big steps to tiny house living is condensing your belongings down to what you prize the most. Pennington admitted it was harder for him than it was for Henry.

“Yeah, you’ve gotta get rid of some toys, and you’ve got to evaluate what’s important to you,” he said.

He sacrificed most of his 300+ T-shirts, for example.

“After I did it, it was a lot more liberating than I thought, getting rid of some stuff,” he said. “I think that kind of weighs you down.”

Henry said they did a major yard sale in Texas before they went tiny, but they gave away most of their excess to family members and charities.

“It was just so nice to be free of it,” she said.

They started this trip on Jan. 2 and vary where they stay. They often use the subscription website harvesthosts.com to find farms, wineries, breweries, agri-tourism sites and other places that welcome tiny homes and self-contained RVs. Some charge nothing but simply ask that the travelers support their business.

So Henry and Pennington have plopped their tiny house down in the middle of a scenic vineyard and enjoyed going to tastings and buying wine. They’ve stayed in a strawberry field and at an auto museum. They’ve also stayed at an alligator ranch and an alpaca farm, helping with farm chores like fencing.

“We started out saying, ‘This is just going to be a year,’ and then as soon as we started doing it, we were like, ‘Oh, this could be addictive,’“ Henry said.

They plan to visit everywhere they can drive throughout the continental U.S., Canada and Alaska. Their biggest living expenses are gasoline (they get about 10 miles per gallon when pulling the 13,000-lb. house) and Internet access.

It’s not their first tiny house, but it’s their favorite. They were living in Texas and decided after their eighth move in five years that they were tired of boxing and unboxing belongings. They bought tiny house blueprints from someone in D.C. and sent it to a Mid-South builder to construct. They were crestfallen when that first tiny house showed up.

“It was terrible,” Henry said.

It didn’t have a good interior flow and there were many repairs that the builder kept avoiding, they said. They quickly learned what they did and didn’t want for a tiny home after living in that one for a year.

This time, they decided to be more hands on.

Many hands went into building their current gray-and-white tiny home, but they did a lot of the work themselves. They bought the underlying trailer from a man in Alabama, who shipped it to a tiny house builder in Chattanooga, Tenn. That expert framed the house and set up their solar array, water catchment system and other infrastructure. Then he shipped it to Pennington’s father in Kentucky for the finishing work.

Both of their fathers are engineers, so Henry drew up plans for her dream tiny house under instruction from Pennington’s father, and he put it into AutoCAD for them.

Photo by Carolyn Bahm The tiny home's kitchen is fully equipped, even including a large farm sink. Just to the left of the sink is a narrow slide-out spice rack the couple are still completing.

Photo by Carolyn Bahm
The tiny home’s kitchen is fully equipped, even including a large farm sink. Just to the left of the sink is a narrow slide-out spice rack the couple are still completing.

Their families have been supportive, and the two remain happy with their lifestyle. Henry and Pennington are generous with details when people ask about it.

The tiny house represents a popular minimalist movement, and it draws curious visitors everywhere, they said.

“You stop at a gas station, and all of a sudden you’ve got an audience of 10 that want to know everything about it,” Henry said, laughing. Most of the time there are about 20 people in and out of their house in a day.

Moving around is simpler than it sounds for the footloose couple. They can pack up any loose items and be on the road in about half an hour.

Their advice to people who are curious is to go on vacation and stay at a tiny house. They recommended trying the airbnb.com website for leads. They also suggested trying more than one tiny house, because they differ widely. It took them a second try to get their home just right.

Henry grew up in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Pennington grew up in Kentucky. But now when people ask where they’re from, they look around and say, “Right here.”

People who want to follow their nomad lifestyle can read along on their blog at methodtoNOMAD ness.com.