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Couple settles in Easthampton after reverse Oregon trail trip

  • Reinish, left, and Chambers, right, stand in front of their tiny, rolling home.

    Reinish, left, and Chambers, right, stand in front of their tiny, rolling home. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lionshead gets some fresh air on the wagon's cat porch.

    Lionshead gets some fresh air on the wagon's cat porch. Purchase photo reprints »

  • The "Whittled-Down Caravan," now a fixture in the couple's backyard.

    The "Whittled-Down Caravan," now a fixture in the couple's backyard. Purchase photo reprints »

  • The wagon's interior, which includes a bed, a sink and a couch. Strip lights along the center of the ceiling are powered by a solar panel on the roof.

    The wagon's interior, which includes a bed, a sink and a couch. Strip lights along the center of the ceiling are powered by a solar panel on the roof. Purchase photo reprints »

  • The wagon's door stands open, showing the custom interior in a caravan used by Libby Reinish and Tristan Chambers on their cross-country journey.

    The wagon's door stands open, showing the custom interior in a caravan used by Libby Reinish and Tristan Chambers on their cross-country journey. Purchase photo reprints »

  • The wagon's couch has cushions that can be filled with laundry and then detached for trips to the laundromat. A battery under the side table serves as a source of electricity to charge laptops and cellphones.

    The wagon's couch has cushions that can be filled with laundry and then detached for trips to the laundromat. A battery under the side table serves as a source of electricity to charge laptops and cellphones. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Reinish constructed a small but functional kitchen out of an old IKEA computer desk.

    Reinish constructed a small but functional kitchen out of an old IKEA computer desk. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Reinish, left, and Chambers, right, stand in front of their tiny, rolling home.

    Reinish, left, and Chambers, right, stand in front of their tiny, rolling home. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Reinish, left, and Chambers, right, stand in front of their tiny, rolling home.
  • Lionshead gets some fresh air on the wagon's cat porch.
  • The "Whittled-Down Caravan," now a fixture in the couple's backyard.
  • The wagon's interior, which includes a bed, a sink and a couch. Strip lights along the center of the ceiling are powered by a solar panel on the roof.
  • The wagon's door stands open, showing the custom interior in a caravan used by Libby Reinish and Tristan Chambers on their cross-country journey.
  • The wagon's couch has cushions that can be filled with laundry and then detached for trips to the laundromat. A battery under the side table serves as a source of electricity to charge laptops and cellphones.
  • Reinish constructed a small but functional kitchen out of an old IKEA computer desk.
  • Reinish, left, and Chambers, right, stand in front of their tiny, rolling home.

Starting in February 2010 and ending six months later, the couple designed and built a custom mobile home modeled after an Oregon Trail-style covered wagon and traveled across the country in it, from New Mexico to western Massachusetts.

“We actually kind of followed the old Santa Fe Trail in reverse, until we got to the end,” Reinish said. “We kept seeing signs like, ‘Historical marker, old wagon tracks this way,’ and that kind of thing.”

The couple followed that route until it ended in Kansas City, and then continued north to Chicago and across the Great Lakes area. The trip took them about three months. Along the way, they stayed at state parks as well as with friends and family.

“We took the north route, through all the corn, basically,” Chambers said.

“We took it into some cities. We took it into Kansas City, we took it into Chicago, and it’s been to New York, so that’s always a funny contrast and also a little terrifying,” Reinish said.

She said that the idea to build the modern-day covered wagon — which they refer to as their “Whittled-Down Caravan” — first struck her while she was reading one of her favorite blogs.

“We really love tiny houses, and I used to read the Tiny House Blog every day,” Reinish said. “One day they posted a picture of a gypsy wagon, and I just loved the way the light came through the canvas. When it’s not cloudy out, it’s really beautiful.”

According to Reinish, much of the wagon’s design came from the couple’s need for something that would be light enough for them to tow behind their Hyundai Elantra. With its curved shape and roof made from high-quality, sail-grade canvas, it weighs less than 1,000 pounds when loaded.

Building their wagon took the couple from February to June, working nights and weekends, at a cost of around $1,500. It has a total living space of 54 square feet. Most of the wagon is constructed from materials that the couple salvaged from houses undergoing renovations or simply found lying on the side of the road.

A solar panel mounted on the wagon’s roof provides enough electricity to power their laptops, cellphones and overhead lighting. Reinish even converted an old IKEA computer desk into a small kitchen, complete with a sink.

“Our goal was to build it for the cost of a month’s rent,” Reinish said. “We went a little over that, but we made up the difference by selling all of our possessions.”

Reinish said the wagon structure was mounted on top of a build-it-yourself trailer kit from Harbor Freight, and that it held together with no problems throughout their journey.

“Everything is glued and screwed together, so it’s really sturdy,” Reinish said. “We had an architect friend come and kind of give us the OK to take it on the road before we did.”

And even though the wagon certainly drew its fair share of gawking and supportive honking from other drivers, it is completely street legal.

“The only thing that you have to register is the trailer itself and the government doesn’t care what you have on top of the trailer as long as it is within the height and width requirements for the road, which we researched before we built it,” Reinish said. “It just counts as a trailer as far as the DMV is concerned.”

The couple’s decision to build a wagon also took into consideration their other traveling companion, their cat Lionshead.

Concerned about the risks of tent camping with a cat, their design included a caged-in porch on the front of the wagon which can be reached via a swinging pet door, which allowed Lionshead to go outside when they were safely camped.

When they reached western Massachusetts in August 2010, Chambers and Reinish continued living in the wagon for another three months, for a time renting a yard in Hatfield. Eventually, in May 2012, they purchased a house on Clark Street in Easthampton.

“A lot of people wonder why you would buy a house when you have a tiny house, but really (to have) the ability to grow food and live sustainably, you need to be in a town to do that, you need to be within walking distance of things, so this really kind of made the most sense to us,” Reinish said.

“It was a big toss-up,” Chambers said. “We were also looking at land in the country, which is also actually more difficult to buy without a house upon it for legal reasons. So this turned out to the best way to get a place.”

They plan on turning their backyard into a permaculture garden, and using the wagon as guest housing during the summer.

The couple decided to come to Easthampton because both had previously lived in the area. Reinish, a Hampshire College alum, was hired as an advocacy campaign manager for Free Press in Florence. Chambers now works as a web developer for the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst.

“Tristan lived in Easthampton when he was a kid, and I went to school out here, so we already were familiar with the area, and we love it here,” Reinish said.

“We really love Easthampton in particular. Our place is walking distance to town, it’s close to Mount Tom, and the place that we ended up with has a great yard.”

They had originally moved to New Mexico in 2008 so that Chambers could finish school at St. John’s College.

“We loved New Mexico — they don’t call it the Land of Enchantment for nothing — but it never felt like home,” Reinish said. “We missed the water, the vibrant green, and the community we had left back in New England.”

“I call this place home,” Chambers said, “especially after being back, it’s nice. It’s a good place to end up.”

Bravo! Less is more.

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