VANCOUVER, Wash. — Sometimes, smaller is better.
Just ask Deanna Wohlgemuth, who still lives with her children in the small first home she bought 15 years ago.
Friends told the Vancouver bartender that the three-bedroom, one bath rambler in Portland was too small. Wohlgemuth proved them wrong.
Wohlgemuth adopted a slogan: “Live small to live large.” The concept has infused her personal life and sparked a business idea.
The 46-year-old left behind a career in corporate marketing and supplements her bartending income by renting out remodeled vintage trailers. One of her trendy campers often is hauled to the great outdoors; another makes appearances at weddings and other events.
Even as a girl, Wohlgemuth was intrigued by silver Airstream campers, she said. Later in life, after she became a mother, she discovered a neighbor who wanted to sell a 17-foot 1965 Airstream.
“It was exactly what I had in my mind,” Wohlgemuth said. “When you open up to what you really want in life, it’s just delivered to you.”
She needed to take on a $70 monthly loan payment — about the same as their cable TV bill. She asked her kids if they wanted television or if they wanted to go camping. The vote was unanimous: Exchange cable television for unlimited family camping adventures.
The last night they had cable, Wohlgemuth made popcorn, and she and her kids stayed up late watching television until the screen turned to static.
“TV’s over. Let the camping begin!” she said.
In the beginning, there were “a lot of mishaps that are funny now. The ‘I Love Lucy’ moments. Cabinets breaking open. The soy sauce explosion of 2002,” she said, smiling.
The first time Wohlgemuth hooked up the water, she didn’t know she needed a regulator hose. The water pressure built and came up through the trailer. Cushions flew. Kids screamed.
“We call that incident Old Faithful,” she said.
Later, when money was tight, Wohlgemuth was faced with selling the camper. Friends stopped by the camper parked in the driveway for impromptu happy hours so often that it was coined the Tin Cantina. Sitting in the camper, they brainstormed ideas to turn the camper into a business, so the trailer would pay for itself.
Then a friend who was getting married outdoors asked Wohlgemuth to set up the Airstream as a lounge for the bridal party. Wedding guests flocked around the camper, took photos and asked Wohlgemuth if she rented it for events. That gave her an idea.
The Tin Cantina is now in its fifth summer providing bar service for weddings and private parties.
At those private parties, people asked if she rented the Tin Cantina for camping trips. But it is her family’s camper, and she didn’t want to share it with other campers.
When her mother mentioned she was going to pay someone to haul a dilapidated old camper to the dump, Wohlgemuth asked if she could have it.
“You don’t want that,” her mother told her.
The 16-foot 1963 Aristocrat camper had broken windows, dirty shag carpeting and a door that was wired shut.
But Wohlgemuth believed she could restore it and rent it out for camping, she said. She hauled it to a friend who restores campers to get his opinion.
“He said, ‘Deanna, it’s a beauty!’ “
And he went to work.
Wohlgemuth christened the restored camper Matilda, her great-grandmother’s name. It also was the name of the mother of Frida Kahlo, a favorite artist.
She rents Matilda out for $50 a night to people who want to try camping in a tiny trailer.
On the back of Matilda, Wohlgemuth painted: “Live small to live large.”
Along the way to seeking a simplified life, Wohlgemuth scaled back her career, too. For years, she had worked long hours in corporate advertising, but her employer always wanted more.
She decided to quit her job and find a better way, she said. Again, friends and colleagues doubted her.
“People told me, ‘You can’t do that. It’s not going to work.’ “
Today, she juggles multiple part-time jobs but says she is happier and has more free time than when she worked one full-time job.
She’s a bartender at Old Ivy Brewery & Taproom in downtown Vancouver. She books the Tin Cantina for gigs and serves as her bartender, and she books Matilda for camping trips. She also designs and sells jewelry.
“Somehow, when you do what you’re passionate about, it all just works out,” she said. “Don’t listen to other people. Look at your own path of evolving. It’s powerful to look at what I’ve accomplished.”
Story is important to Wohlgemuth, a Cherokee Indian. When water destroyed a keepsake box she had saved since high school, her first response was to grieve the treasures made by her mother and grandmother. But then she gathered her children around her, pulled each item from the box and told a story about it.
“It was easy to let those things go. We had a nice bonfire.”
But she kept the stories. Her kids still ask her to tell those stories.