Living With Kids: Stephanie Starner

RV Home Tour

Have you ever wished you could just sell your house, store your favorite stuff, and take your life on the road for a year? (Or, let’s be realistic, a week or two would be an adventure, too!) I’m always interested in those who redefine the typical, the expected, the status quo. And Stephanie did just that, living and working in an RV and traveling the US with her sweet family.

Spoiler: My favorite part of this interview is her recounting of the family’s worst moment on the road. It’s a nail-biter, with a lovely, lovely ending. I can’t wait to share it with you. Welcome, Stephanie!

Hi, everybody! My name is Stephanie. My husband, Ryan, and I were high school and college sweethearts. We’ve officially been together for over half our lives, which is so crazy to think about!

We have two children. Our son Ben is almost seven, and our daughter Gwen will be two in June. When we aren’t out adventuring the country in our RV, we live in beautiful Traverse City, Michigan and run our own successful art studio called Never Wonder Studio.

We wholesale my husband’s artwork around the world in aquariums, surf stores, boutiques, and beach stores.

We haven’t always worked for ourselves, though. Ryan spent over a decade in the banking and finance industry, and I worked in media sales and book publishing. Once we started our family we realized that we really wanted to live a life that would allow for travel, to be in charge of our own schedule, and have family togetherness. Thus our studio was born and grown into what has allowed us to work from anywhere!

We have just returned from traveling across the USA in our RV for the last eight months.

We decided to sell our Victorian home that we purchased after we got married. Our family was quickly outgrowing it since adding baby number two. And since we can run our business from anywhere we thought why not take the kids on a family adventure and travel the USA by RV before we buy our next home?

Our RV was new off the lot when we bought it in March 2016. It is lightweight enough to pull with our Jeep Grand Cherokee V8. It was important to us that the camper have a space for both kids, and the Jayco 26 Bunkhouse did just that.

The kids both have a double bunk bed, which our son Ben loves. We kept baby Gwen safe by installing a retractable baby gate over the entire opening of her bed on the bottom bunk.

We have a nice shower and bathtub in the RV that both kids could actually fit in together when we left on our trip! No chance of that now, though; something about all the fresh air made them grow!

Our kitchen has a nice gas oven and stove, microwave, and double sink, but the counter space is almost nonexistent. And our fridge space was just bigger than a mini fridge, which means I got very good at Tetris style placement when putting away groceries.

One of the downsides was not having a washer and a dryer on hand, but at the same time one of the perks of having to do your laundry at the laundromat was that you get to do all the loads at once! 

Surprisingly this adventure – aside from bigger ticket items like whale watching excursions or tickets to Disneyland – was similar in cost to our monthly expenses in our stationary lifestyle, aside from the addition of gas and mileage on our car. Since we sold our home before we left, we found our monthly RVing costs for nightly stays to be near what it was when we had to pay our mortgage and household bills. Other outside expenses varied depending on eating out and city size. 

When we moved into the RV it was very exciting. We were starting this great adventure and we didn’t know if we would be gone for three weeks, three months or three years. (Spoiler: we lasted almost a year before I needed doors in my life again!)

After a while, we found we all settled into family travel pretty well; with enough snacks and water in the car, we could go about three hours at a stretch. Once we slowed our pace of travel and began staying in places for a week or two (or three or five) and got to really explore the area, that’s when we really began to enjoy ourselves.

We really fell in love with some of the towns we visited, like Port Townsend, Washington and Santa Cruz, California. We found it hard to leave, even with promises to return someday soon whispered into the winds on a last hike or walk along the boardwalk.

RV Home Tour

When we told our families what we were doing I think they were actually relieved. Ha! You see, we had initially been planning on taking a boat trip with the kids, leaving from Florida and heading down the Bahamas island chain. We bought the RV to live in during hurricane season on the east coast, which lasts about three months a year. 

And even though we are boaters, growing up sailing the Great Lakes and even buying our own sailboat to help us reach our cruising dreams, when we went to Florida in the RV to look at boats, we were passing the baby back and forth and kept trying to keep an eye on Ben, all while keeping to the rule “one hand for you, one hand for the boat.”

It was kind of crazy.

And we looked at each other and both had the same thought: maybe we should choose the safer option for our young family now, and go land yachting in our RV. Our kids loved the idea, although our son was sad about leaving our kitty with his grandparents at what I called Kitty Camp. He was a bit comforted by the promise of taking his bin of precious Legos, though.

Our parents also loved the idea, although they were sad about not seeing the kids for a while. We did do lots of Skyping with them on our trip. And our friends were excited for us. Some a bit skeptical and some wistful. 

When we moved into the RV, it was important to me that the kids were excited about their space, and that they knew that they had their favorite toys. We brought WAY too many toys!

I let my son pick out new bedding; he was super excited about his shark sheets and comforter set!

While we did purge and downsize when we sold our home, we also kept a storage unit so we were able to choose some of our favorite artwork to place inside the RV – this helped make it feel like home. I also used lots of fun throw pillows, small succulents, fresh flowers, and a nice candle to add some homey touches. 

Overall, the RV felt semi spacious – as spacious as one can feel in less than 200 square feet! Most nights we had a beautiful view out our windows in an awesome new place and we were able to sit outside by a fire, under the stars when the kids went to bed. But when it started raining in October in the Pacific Northwest and continued to rain in epic proportions in California through January, let’s just say it started to feel S.M.A.L.L.

The rhythm of our typical day on our family adventure was easy to get in the groove of, as most of our business is located in the Eastern time zone and we spent a lot of time on the West Coast. That means that we could work earlier on West Coast time, allowing for fun earlier in the afternoon.

We found the mornings went well when Ryan worked from 8:30 to noon, contacting clients and packing orders to be shipped. He normally worked from the picnic table, or the Jeep when it was hard to find cell phone reception, driving until he reached a signal that normally included a jaw dropping view!

At that same time I worked with Ben on first grade home school lessons and tried to keep Gwen from climbing and scribbling on his work.

After work and school we would eat lunch together and pack the car with water and snacks. So many snacks. Gwen would take her nap while we saw the sights of our location, taking turns doing things with Ben while she slept in the car. When she woke, we would all do something together like go to the beach or take a short hike. Often times we would go tide pooling, wearing her in the ergo and then head back to the RV to make dinner.  

We found that if we kept to a routine in the RV it helped with bedtime. Oftentimes the kids were sleeping by 7:30 after a long day of playing outside. In such close quarters, the night time hours were muffled by the noise of the exhaust fan over the stove and the fan setting on the air conditioner. While this was effective to keep the noise at bay while the kids slept – no doors, mind you, except in the bathroom – it was also so annoyingly loud. 

While we were traveling, the one thing I missed after a few months on the road was the sense of community you get from living in a place for a while and really knowing your neighbors. I think after September came around and there were visibly less people doing what we were doing and lots less kids around it felt different.

One of the most memorable (and scary) experiences on the road came in the form of a huge storm, a storm we got accidentally caught in on the border of South Dakota and Wyoming as we headed west. The storm and winds became so bad that we had to seek shelter; I called 911 to see if we were in the eye of a tornado. The operator urged us to seek shelter immediately, to cover the kids with anything we had, and run into the building. The winds were so high – 75 or 80 mph – and we had to turn our RV in the middle of the road and get back to the nearest shelter, which was a small brick rest stop building we had passed a mile back. We made the turn and pulled as close to the building doors as possible, hoping to run inside but the winds were so strong and the hail was so big we couldn’t open the doors. I covered the kids under blankets in their car seats and prayed.

Just as I thought the windshield was going to break out a huge semi truck pulled alongside us and blocked us from the strongest of the winds. When the storm subsided and everyone got out of their vehicles, the semi truck driver came up to Ryan and told him he was proud of the way he handled the RV in the winds and that he really thought we were going to flip over, that is why he came along side us to protect us. That move right there changed my whole idea of truck drivers – I see them now as angels on the highway.

The greatest lesson while taking this awesome family adventure was gratitude that we were doing this by choice. That we were able to decide to travel the country, make a living, teach our children, and have the means to do it well.

This became painfully clear when September rolled around. We were staying on this little island near Portland, Oregon, and there were children who would appear after school let out and come over to play with Ben. The kids were fascinated with all his toys and soon started sharing that they didn’t have many toys. One younger girl told me how she was hungry and that her mom can’t buy fruit, as I passed her a banana. This happened nearly every day for a week and a half while we stayed there. Each day it broke my heart a bit more to see the poverty that surrounded us on what we were doing for an adventure.

I wish I had known sooner how much taking this family adventure would change us as a family by bring us all closer together – and not just space-wise! Our son and daughter are five years apart, and watching them grow together and seeing how much love they have for one another has been my greatest delight. I am pretty sure that the bond would have been strong even if my son had gone to traditional school for first grade, but something about spending all day every day together in new situations, both boring (riding in the car) and exciting (Tide pooling! Whale watching! Catching crabs! Building forts with driftwood!) has created something very special between them.

And having to work together with my husband so closely in parenting while traveling and running our business and daily life in such close quarters has also brought a new friendship to our relationship. If you have the means to travel with your family, even just for few weeks or the summer, I highly suggest making it happen.

RV Home Tour

Whoever said “Collect memories, not stuff” was totally on to something.

–-

Ever since I read this, I haven’t been able to see truckers on the road and not think of them as highway angels — it’s all I can do not to blow them a kiss! Thank you for that, Stephanie. I loved sharing this space with you.

So what do you think? Anyone have the urge to hit pause and take their show on the road? If you do, remember to take lots of pictures so you can share them with us on your return! Deal?

P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me know! We love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! I should also mention, I have a goal to bring more diverse points of view to Design Mom this year. So if you don’t see yourself or your community reflected here, let’s make it happen — send in your details, or recommend a friend! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.

14 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Stephanie Starner”

    1. Thanks Lee! Homeschooling on the road was awesome! It allowed us to learn all day long. Even when our son was not schooling (doing book work or lessons) he was being schooled and he had no idea he was learning. So tricky of us 😉

  1. Wow! My husband and I are traveling in our camper van this summer for 10 weeks. If you don’t mind, are there any adult essentials (i.e., that great French press) that you would recommend for small spaces? We do not have children. Bravo to you and your family!

    1. Hi Ali! Gosh that sounds like so much fun!! This may sound silly but I really loved the small crockpot I bought, it allowed us to go out and explore all day and come back to a nice meal! Did you know you can even cook baked potatoes in your crock pot? Game changer.
      A outdoor rug for outside the camper door will save you loads of sweeping out the van. And depending on how remote you’re going get your podcasts and music downloaded before you head out! Have a wonderful time and don’t forget your French press!!

    2. I echo the French press and outdoor mat. We travelled in our camper for 6 weeks last summer. It has a single burner stove top and a microwave but we also brought along a very small BBQ and a panini press. The Panini press worked well for sandwiches, cooking frozen waffles, even warming up pre-cooked meats and some restaurant leftovers. Camp chairs and acrylic wine glasses are a good idea too. Some campgrounds have book exchanges, so if you like to read, maybe pack a few pre-loved books into the camper for trading. Happy travels!

    1. Yes, that trucker’s actions made me teary, too! What a beautiful example of the strong (literally) protecting the weak.

      Your travels sound amazing and I agree that Port Townsend is one of the most perfect places in the US.

  2. Oh my gosh! The best part of this interview is when I clicked on Stephanie’s name and realize that she and her husband are the artists behind the Great Lakes & Michigan stickers my husband and often see in the Upper Midwest. As a proud “yooper” my husband loves both of those stickers so much!! It’s awesome to learn the back story.

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