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A gypsy's caravan

If less is more and small is beautiful, then Joseph Crowell's custom camper — hand-built in Ashland for extreme simplicity — is one of the most beautiful homes around.

Using 80 percent recycled materials, Crowell shaped a 65-square-foot mini-mansion to include a bed, sink, two-burner stove, a sitting bench and storage under the bed. The outside is fashioned from charming custom woodwork (with skylight).

The home sits on a Toyota truck frame, took about four months to build, and Crowell hopes his prototype will be the first in a line of Gypsy Dream Homes that will sell for $10,000.

The goal of these eye-catching homes is not to have just another trailer or RV; it's part of a bigger shift to simplicity, to less-complicated lifestyles and to being good to the planet, says Crowell, who built the first Gypsy Dream Home in his barn on Dead Indian Memorial Road.

Operating without blueprints or even drawings, Crowell put the gypsy wagon together as if it were a piece of art (he's a painter and musician). He depended heavily on inspiration from found objects, using old, salvaged windows from a church tear-down, a round, glass dinner plate for an opaque door window, esthetically pleasing madrone branches for handrails, and stained glass windows he assembled himself.

When he takes his wagon to the Ashland art walk or the mall, it quickly draws a crowd — and it's the kids and the elderly who "get it" and can't help but smile as they check out the intentionally Hobbit-like dwelling.

"The door is four feet high. It's made to stimulate mindfulness," he says. "If you're mindful, you duck. Kids flock around it. They see it as a fairy house and their faces light up when they go inside. It makes me happy to see everyone getting a kick out of it."

The rolling home is fashioned after horse-drawn Romani or gypsy wagons, called vardos, notes Crowell. Like a vardo, his home flares outward at the top, with arched roof and doorways and decorative trim around windows.

The sink operates from a 20-gallon water storage tank run by a 12-volt pump. The small fridge runs on a 12-volt battery. There are plugs for 110-volts to run laptop, stereo and lights. Propane runs the burners. It's 6 feet wide, 14 feet long and 6 feet high inside. The shell is made of 1.5-inch strand board with rigid insulation between inner and outer walls.

Though he confesses to having fallen in love with the home, Crowell says he's game to sell it to get money to start on more of them.

His interest in handmade road homes goes back to the 1980s, when he crafted together a school bus with the upper half of a Volkswagen bus welded on top — a vehicle to follow the Grateful Dead on their road shows. His vision also is inspired by the Tumbleweed Tiny House, whose homes, available in kit, start at 89 square feet.

"I could live in this. I've been shedding the things of my life and cleaning out the clutter in the past few years," he notes. "You may think you own things, but eventually they own you. I don't need that much, but I'm keeping my home because I'm an artist and a musician."

His home has bells on the eave and a Sufi winged heart, symbolic, he said, of the oneness of all life.

The winged heart can be read as symbolic of the freedom of a simple life — and Crowell says he enjoys his trips to the Coast, cruising along at a modest 50 mph and camping far from conventional campgrounds, where too many "campers" bring all the conveniences of home, including ear-pestering generators.

"We're coming to a time in our culture where more and more people say they want to get rid of all the stuff. It's amazing, the excess we all have — and our big houses are mostly just places to keep it all."

Crowell can be reached at jsph.crowell@gmail.com or 541-840-2009.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Joseph Crowellís custom camper uses 80 percent recycled materials. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Jim Craven