John Labovitz – Through a Traveler’s Lens

This post is by Billy Ulmer, author of the Life in a Tiny House ebook.

John Labovitz's house truck
John Labovitz in his housetruck

What would your home look like if one of your top priorities was maintaining the feeling of traveling, where an interesting surprise could be waiting around any corner?

As I dug around John Labovitz’s blog for clues to why he built a housetruck, as opposed to a tiny house on wheels, I found this quote explaining the inspiration he found in British “Showman’s wagons”:

“For me, the showman’s wagon is a more appropriate form than a peaked cottage grafted onto a trailer. The wagon look says ‘move’; the cottage seems to say ‘stay.’”

Movement turned out to be fairly central to John’s approach to life. After buying a traditional house and finding its location lacking, he investigated other options. Tiny houses on wheels looked perfect for him at first, but further consideration of his values led him to want an even more mobile option than a tiny house on a trailer. He opted instead for a flatbed truck, with a separate living space bolted onto the bed. John’s housetruck is just that: truck in the front, house in the back.

Changing Scenery and Maintaining Perspective

John has friends and roots in numerous places, and travels both for work and for the pleasure of exploration. He’s not as interested in grand sites and monuments as much as the winding back roads and homey neighborhoods, from rural Louisiana to Istanbul, Turkey. His housetruck supports this traveler’s perspective. When you know you’re staying put, it’s so easy to forget to be curious. Feeling his residence was merely “parked” encouraged him to treat his homes as destinations instead of backdrops.

John’s longest “parking” tenure was three years in a bustling area of Portland, Oregon, but he’s since relocated to a very different setting: a semi-functioning apple orchard his family owns in West Virginia. It’s a world away from Portland, but regular visits throughout his life made him feel at home there, despite the colder weather temporarily forcing him out of the housetruck and into his uncle’s house this past winter. John’s new adventure is to investigate using the land to host an artist residency program for printmaking and photography, spurred by his ongoing work to document letterpress printers. To someone who thrives on new information and fresh perspective, this new chapter in his life holds nothing but opportunity: for the land, for John, for his work, for the truck, and for the little house bolted to the back. This abridged and edited highlight of our talk shares some of his story, but there’s much much more in my ebook, Life in a Tiny House.

John's housetruck
John’s housetruck: a structure bolted directly to a flatbed truck, as opposed to towed on a separate trailer

Billy: What do you think living here has allowed you to do that you couldn’t have done otherwise?

John: I think probably the biggest thing is just feeling that I didn’t have to go through the mental commitment to a place. Whether it was signing a lease on something, or buying a house, or even just saying, “Where do you live?” I mean, I could say in Portland, “Oh, I live at 28th and Alberta”, but it was always slightly temporary, in a good way. “I mean, that’s where the truck is parked, but if I got a better offer, I could go somewhere else.” [Laughs.]

I think that’s what’s worked out really well for me. I’ve known people who love having their home base as a fixed place. They buy the house, and they do all the things they do to their house and their land, and they get a lot of satisfaction out of that. But that’s not how it works for me. It works in some ways out here [on the family property]. I’m satisfied, but for different reasons. It has a different personal background. It wasn’t a place I acquired myself and did something to, it’s just a place I’m connected with.

It’s like how I was talking about traveling. I actually relate to places better when I feel like I’m traveling. Because I always try to have that fresh eye. Once I get into a place and I get too settled, I stop seeing things. Things become the same, right? Even though technically the housetruck was parked for three years in Portland, it still always… It didn’t feel like it was cemented in. I could have taken it somewhere else.

Housetruck in West Virginia
Housetruck interior, a tiny accessory, and the apple orchard.

And there’s something about the size too. It’s so small, it’s easy to close the door and walk away. It’s hard to describe. I like spending time in here, but I can also easily, when I want to, just go somewhere else. And there’s something about a bigger house, that the bigger a place is, the harder it is to leave. I even have that now, here at the farm. I can be here for weeks. [Laughs.] I have to go to the store occasionally, but over the winter… We were snowed in a lot. I could have left, but I really hate driving in a lot of that weather. And there wasn’t any need to leave – I got good at going out to the store and stocking up.

But when I was in the tiny house in the city, there was something about that, that it was just enough interface. It was my own space, but it wasn’t a fixed space. It was part of the city, but not a cemented-in part of the city. It just sort of existed in this gray area. When it’s not defined, to me, that’s where things are interesting. Before you know everything. But, as you’re seeing it.

Billy: Conscious, but not decided.

John: Which is what traveling is about. [Laughs.]

Learn more about John Labovitz at Polymecca, where he documented his housetruck build, or learn about his work at johnlabovitz.com

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