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Q&A From the Bus Life

I wanted to share some stories about my childhood growing up in an old GMC school bus, but thought I'd start by answering some of the most frequent questions people ask about those years. Unlike many of the bus people you see on Instagram today (apparently called "skoolies") we moved into our bus out of sheer necessity and didn't have the money to fully convert it. Don't get me wrong, I love all the wild adventures we had and appreciate how those experiences made me a more dynamic person, but our life was not glamorous. It is also worth noting that I'll be answering these questions from the perspective of a child being raised in that environment, without any choice about the matter. So, without further ado, let's dig in:

Did you Travel a lot?

We did! In the summers we'd go up to Oregon to spend time with family. During winter break we'd often drive out to the middle of the desert in Arizona and celebrate Christmas among the jumping cacti. We searched for radioactive three-eyed fish in a hatchery on the Columbia river, lived on the outskirts of a Hutterite colony in Montana, and traveled all over the West Coast going to gem shows and flea markets and festivals named after vegetables like Brussels sprouts and artichokes.

So where did actually you Live?

In the early years, we lived wherever my parents could find work. When my dad was on a logging team, we lived in the state parks nearby. They had a time limit on occupancy though, so every two weeks we'd have to spend a day or two somewhere else. We've also lived in a junk yard, a Christian camp, and Safeway parking lots. Our most stable address was the driveway of our favorite drug dealer, where we stayed for about 5 years.

Did you have electricity or running water?

My dad was a mechanical wizard, so while we never technically had electricity in the bus, he wired it so that if we were parked near a source we could pipe in power with a long orange extension cord. At some point he was able to hook up a (obnoxiously loud) generator, too. My mom had a few oil lanterns for light, and for Easter one year they got us each a flashlight we could read with after dark. As for water, my dad attached a water tank to the bus, but it only fed into the kitchen, so running water was used mostly just for food preparation.

So,... how did you shower?

I guess the short answer is that we really didn't. We kept ourselves clean the way Army soldiers do: a daily wipe down with a rag and some faucet water. Sometimes we stayed at camp sites that had showers, so we'd drop a quarter in them and get a nice hot steamy shower. But more often than not, we simply knocked off the big chunks playing in the rivers and ocean, and then scrubbed down with a wash cloth before bed.

How did you poop?

It's really cool seeing all the composting toilets the "skoolies" are using, but we didn't have anything as fancy as a bathroom. We did have a toilet that was salvaged from a neighbor's RV, and my mom quilted a beautiful curtain to close it off visually from the rest of the bus. The toilet didn't flush, per se, but rather when you used it you had to dump water in the basin from a 5 gallon jug (used as a side table in the picture above), and then hit the lever to open the hatch (similar to an airplane flush, but without the loud whooshing sound). Every couple weeks we'd empty our gray water where the RVs did.

Was the bus heated?

When we were traveling, the bus stayed warm from the heat coming off the engine block. When we were stationary, we had a great little wood stove. On winter mornings, my mother would get up really early and start a fire so by the time she had to rouse us for breakfast and school the whole bus was toasty warm. The wood stove was right behind the driver's seat, and was my favorite place to sit while we were driving down the road.

How was food prepared and kept safe?

My mom is absolutely the most resourceful and creative person I know. I don't think we would have survived more than a couple weeks in the bus without her. She had a bunch of white buckets in the back of the bus that held the dry goods like flour and oatmeal, and she canned a ton of vegetables and fruits, too. We had a little RV fridge (also from the neighbor) but it wasn't always living it's best life and often had to be augmented with bags of ice from the market. This is where we kept meat and dairy and sometimes smelly garbage until we could dispose of it at the next stop. Somehow my mother was able to use all those basic ingredients to whip up healthy and filling meals in the little kitchen. We had a stove and oven combo (thanks again, neighbor!), a stainless steel sink, and about two feet of counter space to chop and prepare.

What were the sleeping arrangements?

My dad built bunk beds for us three kids in the back of the bus (across from the toilet), and he and my mom slept on the floor near the front of the bus on a bed roll my mom made. Our two large dogs loved sleeping under the dinette table. When we outgrew this configuration, they raised the roof of the bus to create a sleeping loft. The loft was tall enough to sit up in, and each of the kids were given some personal space about the size of a large dining room table. Our area was separated from the parental loft space by a large dresser that stretched across most of the width of the bus and provided a little privacy for all of us.

Okay,... How did your parents... you know... I mean, with the kids right there??!

I guess the same way your parents did: they waited for the kids to go to sleep and then did it as quietly as possible. My parents were very unconventional so sex was never a secret, but surprisingly we made it at least half a decade before any of us caught them in the act.

How did your family make money on the road?

By being resourceful and open to doing whatever it took to get by. They picked up work whenever they could: chopping lumber, picking fruit, working in camp kitchens, data entry. My dad eventually landed a steady job at Seagate which provided for us pretty well. My mom made beaded earrings and strands and necklaces and beaded spiders which we would sell at the flea market on the weekends. She was ingenious with side gigs though, baking cinnamon rolls and selling them to truckers at truck stops, sewing curtains and blankets for other bus people, and volunteering at the food bank in exchange for a box of produce.

What was the best part about living in a bus?

Looking back, I'd say the best part about living in the bus was how together my family was. 280 square feet makes for a very intimate home, and we thrived in it. When we eventually moved into a house where we each had our own separate areas, we grew apart. We spent less time doing things together. Maybe that's just the natural way a family grows, but it was so great when we all relied on and wanted to be around each other.

What was the most difficult part about living in the bus?

Our school district had three elementary schools that fed into one junior high and high school. We moved around the valley so much that we switched schools pretty regularly, which gave kids at all three primary schools the opportunity to bully us. Then, when we all funneled into junior high together, it felt like every kid had a reason to hate us. It was really isolating and lonely. I wished that we had only gone to one elementary school so that we had the chance to start fresh in junior high. We were living in a house by then and it would have been nice to meet new people that had no idea we were the bus kids. But that's not the way the cookie crumbled, so we were bullied relentlessly throughout the remainder of our school years. It was tough.

I bet you wish you grew up in a school bus these days since it's pretty trendy.

Okay. This one is not technically a question, but by far it's the sentiment I hear the most. And the answer is: not really. The tiny home movement is trendy, but nobody is out there admiring people living in mobile home parks. It's not popular right now to live in a bus unless you have tens of thousands of dollars to convert it into some Pinterest-worthy show piece. Comparing "skoolies" with the communities of bus people from my childhood is like saying those backpacking the Appalachian Trail are the same as those going glamping in a yurt. I didn't get bullied because of living in the bus, I got bullied because I was poor. And based on the hefty price tags you see on Tiny House Nation, being poor still isn't the cool kid thing to be.

Where is it now?

The bus is currently parked in the driveway of my mom's house in California. She's fixing it up, repairing the mechanics, and adding some creature comforts. Her plan is to buy some property in the forest and park the bus there, spending her retirement living the simple, outdoor life that brought her so much peace and happiness all those years ago.

If there's anything you're curious about that I didn't touch on, find me on Facebook or Twitter and let me know!


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