Couple finds pure joy in hitting the road in an 188-square-foot RV — with their 4 pets

Staring down a Pittsburgh winter in December of 2015, Mandy and Kevin Holesh borrowed a relative’s camper, attached it to their truck and hit the road for four months in search of warmth. They wound their way down the East Coast to the Florida Keys, where Mandy, a wedding photographer, had a gig that February.

They came back to Pittsburgh that spring ready to establish their lives here, even planting a garden at their new apartment in Shadyside. But they couldn’t shake their mobile adventure.

“In the fall, when winter was approaching again, we were like, ‘What are we doing here?’ said Mandy on a phone interview from Austin, Texas. “We sat on the porch and planned it all out.”

Mandy and Kevin Holesh inside the camper that they have called home for more than two years. ( Trinity Walker Keefer)

“It” became a life on the road. For more than two years, the couple — and their four pets — have traveled the country full time, their adorably decorated camper and gorgeous travel photos attracting the attention of home-design and lifestyle websites and tourism sponsors.

In the process they’ve paid off more than $120,000 in debt, thanks to low living costs and a popular app developed by Kevin that encourages people to spend less time using their phones and more time doing things like traveling around the country for two years. The app “Moment,” has been downloaded 5 million times.

The interior of the camper before renovation. (Mandy Holesh)

Kevin and Mandy, both 29, went to Hampton High School and began dating on their graduation day. They stayed in Pittsburgh for college, her attending Robert Morris for marketing and photography and him going to Duquesne to study entrepreneurship.

She was the first intern at the online clothing company ModCloth, working there in styling, modeling and photography for several years afterward before she became a full-time wedding photographer. He went directly into business for himself developing iPhone apps.

The camper after renovation. (Mandy Holesh)

Shortly after they got married in September 2014, they settled into a newlywed domestic routine. After dinner, they would sit on the couch in their Crafton apartment, each scrolling through their respective phones to unwind from the day.

Except after a little while, Kevin realized that wasn’t what he wanted to be doing.

He built an app to track how much time he was using his phone every day. “I wanted it mostly for myself, to keep myself accountable on how much time I was spending on my phone.”

Turns out other people wanted it, too.

There wasn’t anything else like it on the market at the time and within two days of launching, it was featured on the influential tech site TechCrunch. Within a month, it was in the New York Times. The app, which Kevin generally works on single-handedly, has nearly 4,000 reviews on the App Store, averaging 4.5 stars out of 5. It was featured earlier this year as Apple’s “App of the day.”

The app is free, though a $3.99 premium version offers a 14-day bootcamp to help reduce phone usage and the ability to set daily limits, at which point the phone essentially blocks access to its screen.

Kevin could work full time on Moment from anywhere, and Mandy could fly to weddings that she had booked to photograph, so the couple wasn’t tied to Pittsburgh for their work life. When they decided to ditch their Shadyside apartment and take to the road, they saved up $10,000 to buy a camper — and ended up finding an old Keystone Cougar “fifth wheel” for $5,000, leaving them extra money to fix it up. On the way back from picking up a new truck, they also found their fourth pet abandoned at a gas station — a kitten they named Grizzly — to add to their first cat, Nimbus, their goldendoodle, Foxey Cleopatra, and their German shorthaired pointer, Luna.

Nimbus the cat. (Mandy Holesh)

Dogs Foxey Cleopatra (left) and Luna. (Mandy Holesh)

In preparation to move into the camper, they got rid of many of their possessions -— and 90 percent of Mandy’s wardrobe — and rented a small storage unit in Pittsburgh for family heirloom furniture. The biggest renovation project they’d previously attempted was to paint an accent wall, but they dove into a major renovation anyway. “We watched YouTube videos and read articles and figured it out,” said Mandy. “We pretty much touched every surface. We have a lot of mistakes but we are really grateful for those mistakes. It taught us a lot about what not to do.”

In contrast to the wood paneling and dingy seafoam carpet that came with the camper, their renovation was colorful, bright and charming. They painted the upper cabinets and some lower cabinets yellow, built a wall of plant shelves for potted succulents and filled an Ikea futon with eclectic throw pillows.

The Holeshes cook most of their meals in their camper kitchen. (Mandy Holesh)

Their renovation has drawn notice from home design websites such as DesignSponge, Apartment Therapy and A Beautiful Mess. It was also featured on the website for the Today Show.

Mandy’s photographs from their various destinations have attracted attention as well, from a sunset in the Valley of Fire, Nevada, to kayaking on Lake Michigan, to a blue-green lagoon in Hamilton, Texas. She was recently sponsored by Texas Tourism to travel around the state and feature her destinations on their blog, 188sqft.com (named after the square footage of their camper). They also post frequently on Instagram at @188sqft.

Life on the road isn’t always glamorous, said Mandy, from military showers to filling water tanks to a parade of unfamiliar grocery stores. But it’s less of a hassle than one would think. “I think everything is amazing with this lifestyle,” she said. “We’re really lucky that we found it, to be able to get away from everyday tasks and more into what we want to be doing with our lives. We’ve been able to see our lives in a bigger picture.”

The Holeshes built a shelf for a wall of succulent plants, and Mandy sewed a pom pom garland for the window. (Mandy Holesh)

They’ve learned to plan their itinerary loosely, staying at least two weeks in each destination. They particularly enjoy “boondocking” — parking for free on Bureau of Land Management property, without hookups to water or electricity. “It’s like living in a tent, but with the comforts of a house,” Mandy said.

This year, Mandy is scaling back on her wedding photography to focus on learning silversmithing and jewelry design. Thus far, she’s sold all of her inventory on her etsy shop, The Road to Silver.

The couple doesn’t envision themselves living on the road forever — but do plan on doing so for several more years. Earlier this month, they bought a new, larger, camper, a Grand Design Momentum complete with a covered area where Mandy can make jewelry in bad weather. They plan to renovate it this spring in New Mexico, before traveling to Utah, Montana and Idaho this summer.

“I think we live a very normal life,” she said. “We’re just regular people who want to explore.”

Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.

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