OVER 4 MILLION VIEWS is a big number for any YouTube video. Which begs the question: What is it about? Tom Burick, the creator of the Tiny Side of Tiny YouTube channel, thinks he knows. And his answer is big. see how connection is driving Tom's tiny trailer further and further into the mystical backyards of Arizona.
The Quest for Connection
A retired inventor. A tiny trailer. And a quest through the Arizona desert
Mankind's greatest stories have always involved a journey. In our hearts, we're searching for something. So, instinctively, we understand the gravity of a quest. Like Odysseus, we too have been driven far away—and returned greatly changed. Like Bilbo, we have ventured there and back again. Like Arthur's knights in search of the Holy Grail, we have felt the desire to pursue something worthy, beautiful, and lasting. Tom Burick's life has followed a similar path. The retired inventor living in the Arizona desert was looking for something. And when he built a tiny trailer from scratch, he had no idea that it would be the very conduit to his greatest desire: the joy of human connection.
The Inventor in the Desert
Quite frankly, Tom cannot remember a time in his life when he wasn't interested in robotics. The problem was that his family was not a family of means. There was not a lot of food at home. Not a lot of clothes. No hope of college. But then something happened. Tom remembers, “When I started becoming interested in robotics, I had some people in the community that saw that passion, and they supported me—when I had no support from any other area of my life.” Listening to Tom, you can hear the emotional emphasis in his voice. “I remember how that changed my life. It fundamentally changed my life.” Teaching himself robotics from discarded textbooks, Tom forged his own path. Earning several technology patents.
Founding a multinational robotics company. Winning awards, going on television, and rubbing shoulders with the giants of Big Tech. He lived that dream for over 10 years. But when that phase of his life came to a close, he became consumed with a new desire. Tom says, “It was really important for me to bring opportunity where there would otherwise be none.” And that desire led him to the Arizona desert where he began work as a teacher for kids diagnosed with special needs. Paying it forward became Tom's new passion.
Demystifying the Impossible
As a special needs school teacher in Gilbert, Arizona, Tom teaches a camping club on Friday. And one day, he had an idea: “Wouldn't it be great if I could just throw together some cheap little
foam trailer, drag it into school with the Vespa [his Italian scooter]? The kids would love that, and then they could just bang around on it for a while at the camping club. And then I would just crumple it up and throw it away.” Tom called in support from his friends—Rob, to get the basic shape down; Lucy, to help with the poor man's fiberglass; Jesse, to weld the aluminum frame. Tom was modeling the trailer after a 1947 cabin car. He loves all things from the 1940s and 1950s. He notes, “There's a comfort in the past. Because it has already happened. It's predictable. And for me, that predictability is a source of, almost, comfort.”
It didn't take long for other folks to share Tom's interest in the peculiar project. “We start assembling this,” Tom remembers, “and the garage door is open the whole time we're working. And the people in the neighborhood would walk past. And it would stop people dead in their tracks, and they would approach us with smiles and questions.” Tom still floods his speech with emotion as he recalls the revelation, “At one point, Lucy and I looked at each other, and we were like, ‘This is so much more.' ” At that moment, he realized that this trailer was something special: It was a conduit of human joy and connection. So he started putting more thought into it. And more effort to build it in a way that was more permanent. It took about two and a half months. Everyone was into it, captivated by it. The trailer was as unique as its color—the same Max Meyer Blu 21 as the 50-year old Vespa scooter meant to tow
it. However, the Vespa itself presented its complications. “When you're pulling something with a 50-year-old scooter, things like weight and drag become paramount.” The Vespa was never designed to tow anything. But Tom knew it was intended to hold a passenger. So factoring a very human weight of 170 pounds, he set that as the trailer's benchmark. Which led to some incredible solutions. Tom and his team constructed the entire frame from aluminum and covered it with poor man's fiberglass— incredibly durable, incredibly light, and watertight. The living space was 8 feet long and 40 inches wide. Of course, all this came with limitations. But even that to Tom is a matter of perspective because he knows that creation benefits from a boundary. “The things that some people see as limitations I see as opportunities. Because those limitations can fundamentally change the project in really profound ways.”
At one point, Lucy and I looked at each other, and we were like, ‘This is so much more
In fact, few things excite Tom more than that idea, “I like doing impossible things with seemingly incapable machines. That brings me tremendous joy, because that makes me realize—and
I hope it makes other people realize— that you don't have to be rich, and you don't have to have a lot of resources. Sometimes you can take little more than air and turn it into a great life experience.” Speed and range are among the trailer's limitations. The Vespa motor, after all, is only 4.5 HP. Tom laughs, “There's not a ton of power.
The top speed of the bike, when I'm towing, is about 45 mph best-case scenario. That limits me to where I can go and how far I can go.” But even that has its advantages, because incredible experiences can be within a few miles of your house. “Here in the U.S., we're all caught up in this bigger-better-faster-more mentality. You see these triple-axle fifth wheels pulled by some giant diesel truck, and they're going across the country.” Tom happily acknowledges, “Those journeys have their place, and they can be wonderful— and I took a lot of journeys like that— but there are [also] these incredible adventures in your backyard.”
Tom shares lots of meals on the road, yet another way his trailer connects him with the people around him. The trailer has a full outdoor galley and a tiny kitchenette for cooking inside. He
cooks a lot from scratch, which means he has to buy local food at places like the farmers' market. Which—you might have guessed it—creates new connections. Even at a farmers' market, Tom's trailer creates conversation. Cooking also gives Tom a chance to practice what he learned in the Boy Scouts. He says, “I was a passionate scout. I don't think my channel would be as high quality as it is if I didn't have that foundation in scouting.” You can certainly see what he means when you watch his Thanksgiving video (which now has over 4 million views) on his YouTube channel: The Tiny Side of Tiny. As he prepares to cook a hen for Thanksgiving dinner, he realizes he forgot the roasting bag and aluminum foil. As you might expect from Tom, he improvises.
“Sometimes you can take little more than air and turn it into a great life experience.”
Lemon Groves and Red Dragonflies
As it turns out, the Vespa trailer's limited range also drove Tom into other folks' backyards. Spotting local places on HipCamp, he found lots of lovely camping sites right near home, from little farms to lemon groves. Serendipitously, it has led to Tom's most beautiful and unique interactions— many of which are like little vignettes. “I camped in a lemon grove farm in Lavinia, Arizona,” Tom remembers, recalling one of his favorite moments. “And it's just gorgeous, gorgeous, lush green. Everywhere I looked—beautiful green in the middle of the desert. The area that they had set aside for me was smack in the middle of a lemon grove. It was so picturesque—almost cartoonish in a way. Bright lemons everywhere. It was lovely.” In the grove, Tom spotted another traveler. The man was lying there in the bare grass sleeping. After Tom cooked a meal, he invited the man over. His name was Jeremiah, a traveling artist. And after sharing dinner, he showed Tom some of his beautiful illustrations.
This, of course, is just one of Tom's memorable interactions in his trailer. There are many others. But when asked about one of his favorite memories with the trailer, Tom has no problem relating the first that comes to mind. “Red dragonflies,” he says decisively.
“We were on the Tonto Natural Bridge in Payson, and I was filming the [YouTube] episode. You have to walk down into the natural bridge, and it's a giant hole that's carved into the earth—and you can walk over the top of it. It's a bridge, the largest natural bridge in the world. Then there's a little waterfall that comes down off the bridge. It looks like something out of some beautiful fantasy movie. So you go down, down, down.
You gotta hike, and it's a really long way to get to the bottom where the stream is. “And I get down there. and I didn't expect to see much of anything in terms of life. There were fish, and there were squirrels. And there was beautiful wildlife. But the air was abuzz with these beautiful red dragonflies. They were completely red:
the eyes. the body, the wings—they were completely red dragonflies. And they filled the air. It took my breath away. And I think when I'm 90 years old in a rocking chair, I don't think that memory will ever leave me.”
The Art of Finding Joy
Some of Tom's YouTube videos with his tiny trailer have millions of views. Others just have thousands. Which, frankly, is peculiar when you watch your first video and realize there is no voiceover narration, only captions. No eye contact with the camera, only candid moments. When asked what he thinks might be drawing all the views, Tom says he has an idea. “There are a few things that resonate with people. The comments section is connection to me. And I reply to every single person that leaves a comment.” He confesses, “I will compromise my time in other parts of my day to make sure I give people kind and personal replies. … Even more, in an overly complicated and divisive world, these [videos] are little moments of simplicity and serenity and kindness. More than ever, I think people are looking for those quiet moments.
“More than ever, I think people are looking for those quiet moments.”
His approach is influenced by Japanese camping videos. There's a quietness about them. There's a reserve that is attractive. Tom notes he even loves the translation in those videos, “The translation [in Japanese camping videos] becomes so often oddly poetic. And I've tried to capture that. You notice that the way that I write things isn't very straightforward. My captions and subtitles are in that style.” Tom's also very deliberate and cognizant of his movement within the camera frame. He localizes the image on extremities, like the wear spots on his Vespa or a key being placed in the ignition. “I think that that adds so much texture to the story and pulls people in,” He contemplates for a second. “Those shots create an intimacy.”
That intimacy is always close to the center of what Tom is looking for and trying to share—even with his YouTube channel. “I want to share experiences with people. And I want them to have input into it. I want it to be our experience.” Tom pauses, “When I'm on the road with the Vespa, the joy is very, very external. It's a permeating joy.” And when you have that kind of joy, you want to share it. Because the connection isn't one-sided. Tom sees that when people approach his trailer with a smile. They are immediately disarmed. And in this age of division, that joy is something worthy, beautiful, and lasting. Elusive as it is to find, finding a place of lasting joy just might be our Holy Grail.