Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine: Losing to Gain

In the small town of Elgin, Texas, about 27 miles east of Austin and marked only by an aluminum mailbox on a winding farm-to-market road, Green Acres ATX exists as a unique retreat space for artists, families, large groups and anyone looking to “unplug” and escape the distractions of modern city life. It is also home to Baylor alumni Brandon and Kirsten Dickerson and their two children, Mason, 16, and Mei Li, 12.

But while the Dickersons may own 12.5 acres in the scenic Texas Hill Country, their family of four moved onto the land from a 1,500-square-foot house to live in a space measuring only 350 square feet — specifically, in a restored 1955 Spartan Mansion trailer, complete with a full galley kitchen and tiled bathroom.

1955 Spartan Mansion

The property name, Green Acres ATX (using a popular abbreviation for Austin, Texas), is of course a nod to the late-1960s TV series Green Acres, in which a moneyed, Manhattan lawyer drags his glamorous wife out to the country to live on a ramshackle farm. This is something like the Dickersons’ story, “except with us, it’s the other way around,” Brandon said. “Kirsten may have had a lifelong dream, but this couldn’t have been further from my radar. Growing up in California, only the rich own land and the poor live in trailers. I love the juxtaposition.”

Kirsten and Brandon Dickerson

Seeking retreat

Brandon and Kirsten graduated from Baylor in 1994 and 1995 respectively, Brandon earning a Bachelor of Arts in English and Kirsten a Bachelor of Science in Education. They married in 1997 and lived in Berkeley, Calif., followed by Los Angeles — first in the Silver Lake area, and then near the famous intersection of Sunset and Vine (Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street).

“We lived in the heart of Hollywood,” said Brandon, a filmmaker whose first feature, Sironia (2011), was shot almost entirely in Waco. “In that season, though, it became part of our rhythm to find retreat spaces. I would go almost once a month to, say, a Benedictine monastery or some formal retreat center. We’d explore those places as a family. But, when Kirsten’s mom passed and we moved to Austin five years ago, we couldn’t find that kind of space.”

In 2012, a bizarre family vacation planted the seed that would eventually become Green Acres ATX two years later.

“We went to the Serengeti Ranch in Boerne, Texas,” said Kirsten, the founder and CEO of Raven + Lily, a socially conscious clothing and lifestyle brand. “It was a bed-and-breakfast, but there were giraffes, zebras, camels, ostriches. It’s not there anymore. But, we spent an evening talking to the owner and it made us realize you can do that. You can own land and do things with it.”

In November of that same year, the Dickersons cracked a fresh journal and began filling its pages with ideas for their own theoretical retreat space, even including specific details about film screenings and concerts.

“We began dreaming and praying about selling our home and buying land –– and if we did, what would we do with it? And I think we all loved this idea of creating a space where we would all live, but also a space we would share — a place of peace and restoration,” Kirsten said.

They wanted lots of opportunity to spend time in nature, and they wanted animals — well, Kirsten did.

“But I was the one who was always interested in vintage trailers,” Brandon said. “Kirsten wasn’t so much. But then we saw the Spartan, and she said, ‘Oh, I like this — the style of it. I’d live in one of these if we had land.’”

Living room of Spartan RV

It was done. They bought and restored the vintage trailer as closely as possible to its original, mid-century glory.

“It’s our favorite design era, so the majority of the furnishings are mid-century or mid-century style,” Kirsten said. “To the extent possible, everything inside is vintage, reclaimed or artist-made.”

Living on top of one another (the children literally slept in bunk beds at first), one would assume the primary challenge of this whole endeavor would be the close quarters; but according to Brandon, this aspect has been the least of their worries.

“The closeness hasn’t been a struggle at all,” he said. “Downsizing to the Spartan was in part an aspect of the greater project, in keeping with sustainability and simplicity and those ideas that we’re living out; but it was also financially driven.”

Eventually, the Dickersons obtained a second trailer –– a 1965 Airstream they found on Craigslist –– and moved teenager Mason in.

“He has his own space now in the Airstream,” Kirsten said. “He wouldn’t want to move into a house now. Mason in his Airstream is happy forever.”

A glamping we will go

While they may admit to vague, “someday” plans regarding building a house, moving out of the trailer is not a priority at this point. Upon discovering Elgin in 2013, the couple immediately fell in love with this particular piece of land and wanted to quickly transform it into the retreat destination they had envisioned.

“Sure, we’d like to build a house, but we also wanted to start sharing the land with others. And we weren’t in a place to do it all,” Kirsten said. “So we found a quick and affordable answer.”

The Dickersons now share Green Acres ATX with overnight guests interested in “glamping” (‘glam’ + ‘camping’) — a concept perfect for the camping-averse. The glampers enjoy all the comforts of home inside a spacious and sturdy round tent known as a yurt. A washroom reserved for guests and fully stocked with towels and eco-friendly toiletries stands just a few feet away, and a restored barn features a communal kitchen with a refrigerator, stove and utensils. The couple also hosts “movie nights” and concerts on their land, advertising these events using the event website eventbrite.com.

Glampers are required to book a minimum two-night stay, which they do through the online site airbnb.com serving the international bed and breakfast industry.

“All kinds of people come. We’ve had lots of dads bringing their kids out for camping; we had four moms come out for a long weekend recently,” Kirsten said. “I’d say roughly 25 percent of guests are celebrating an anniversary. We’ve had guests from New York, New Orleans, and we’ve had people from as far away as Finland come.”

The Dickersons will even rent out their Spartan trailer by the week.

“Anyway, it’s not like we have a blueprint for our dream house,” Brandon said. “It’s more like a ‘maybe someday’ thing. Right now, we’re just trying to focus on contentment with what we have. Being present and being content is part of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

More concrete, near-term plans include creating a half-acre organic farm which will provide produce for them and the as guests who stay at Green Acres ATX. Visitors will have the opportunity to volunteer or simply tour the farm and learn more about the crops and cultivating the land. Brandon and Kirsten also plan to have bees and chickens on the farm, providing lodgers with fresh honey and eggs.

The Dickersons (L to R): Kirsten, Brandon, Mason and Mei Li

Losing to gain

The tiny house movement embraced by the Dickersons is growing nationwide, attracting the eco- and budget-conscious away from the traditional, heavily mortgaged 2,500-square-foot home and into one- or two-room, efficiency-style living. But how? Can a family of four be happy squeezing into such a small space?

“You have to be very creative with your resources,” Kirsten said. “And we got rid of 80 percent of our belongings. We sold the majority of our furniture, clothes, a lot of our kids’ things. But we don’t miss anything. It’s an interesting thing as an American to realize you don’t need nearly as much as you think you need on all levels.”

Learning to live with less, Mason and Mei Li stand to inherit values that are difficult for many parents to instill, surrounded by a culture that worships “stuff.”

“With our kids, a big benefit is letting go of consumerism,” Brandon said. “What I’ve seen for them is that their appetite for stuff has decreased substantially. And we love that.”

Of the four Dickersons, 16-year-old Mason keeps the most technology inside his Airstream, “but we’re talking about an Atari, a record player and some vintage cameras,” Kirsten said.

Aside from some very practical lessons learned, the Dickersons have also received a spiritual, even Scriptural education in their brief time as landowners –– both in moments of serenity and in times of struggle.

“We’ve learned patience and just a posture of surrender,” Brandon said. “I’ve learned a lot from the land. I’ve learned how to be quiet and listen.”

Kirsten isn’t sure her business, Raven + Lily, would have survived without this project and this place to relax and know God’s peace.

“I needed a place to process, to quiet my heart and my mind, and I think God has met me here,” she said. “The seasons affect us so differently out here. It’s amazing how much they correlate with Scripture and Scriptural truths. I would sincerely say that I get Scripture in a better way now.”

Brandon maintains a blog, storiesaboutmyass.com (the Dickersons own two miniature donkeys, in addition to two alpacas, chickens and 10 beehives), in which he candidly shares his “field notes” collected throughout his family’s endeavor.

“The largest struggle about this transition has actually been me,” Brandon said. “I brought with me the efficiencies of a city, but the land wins. It’s raw land and things happen. You’re out here and the plumbing goes out, and we have no water, so I have to watch an entire YouTube video about how to fix the plumbing. But, you just can’t get it all done. I have to choose to say, ‘I will do what I can on this day.’”

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This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine, the official publication of the Baylor University College of Arts & Sciences.

Photos by Adam King

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