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When tiny homes hit the road

Why tiny homes on wheels were perfect for the 1960s counterculture

Decades before shows like Tiny House Nation and Tiny House Hunters spawned a nationwide obsession, an earlier generation of do-it-yourself builders launched a mini-house boom of their own—what today we might call Tiny Houses on Wheels.

As with so much else in the late 1960s, this movement stemmed from the widespread sense among counterculture youth that the only way to forge a future of their own would be to reject the status quo and invent a new society for themselves. "How could they resist the all-pervasive, life-consuming monster which they believed urban America had become?" wrote journalist and counterculture chronicler Robert Houriet in 1972. "Resistance had proved futile. Neither peaceful demonstrations nor sporadic gestures of violence could change the mentality of police who threatened to close down their city commune; could vitalize the towering glass apartment buildings and asphalted shopping centers; could breathe life into decayed churches or humanize inflexible corporations. The only option was to split."

For many of the young people who felt the tug of the open road in the late 1960s—especially once their own children entered the picture—a house on wheels provided domestic stability while remaining a contrast to their parents’ staid suburbias. Without sacrificing the freedom to pick up roots and drop them down again wherever their adventures took them, they could have a comfortable ride for the hours and weeks on the road, and an instant house for as long as they needed it once they found a destination.

Spread from Rolling Homes: Handmade Houses on Wheels, by photographer Jane Lidz.

The result went far beyond the classic Volkswagen van with a mattress in the back. Like much of the counterculture architecture of the period, mobile houses reflected a preference for unconventional shapes; an emphasis on reused and repurposed building materials; and the eccentricities of DIY carpenters with little or no experience, making it up as they went along. The tiny spaces not only required a commitment to having minimal personal possessions, but also signaled their owners’ desire for an austere lifestyle that visibly rebuked suburban materialism—wheels on your house told everyone that you were not even encumbered by land.

By the end of the 1970s, there were an untold number of mobile tiny houses across the country, a dispersed fleet of beautifully designed, furnished living spaces built onto flatbeds, pickups, bread trucks, decommissioned mail vans, and, especially, school buses.

The bus that started it all—possibly the most famous nonfictional school bus in history —was a 1939 International Harvester, purchased in 1964 in Menlo Park, California, for $1,500 by Ken Kesey.

The bus’s previous owner had 11 children and had built out the bus into a supersized RV to carry them all. As Tom Wolfe describes it in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, "it had bunks and benches and a refrigerator and a sink for washing dishes and cabinets and shelves and a lot of other nice features for living on the road"—making it the perfect vehicle for the soon-to-be-famous cross-country road trip planned by Kesey and his friends, the Merry Pranksters.

Wheels on your house told everyone that you were not even encumbered by land.

But first, a makeover: "Kesey gave the word and the Pranksters set upon [the bus] one afternoon. They started painting and wiring it for sound and cutting a hole in the roof and fixing up the top of the bus so you could sit up there in the open air and play music, even a set of drums and electric guitars and electric bass and so forth, or just ride." Then came the paint job that rendered the bus instantly iconic. Swirls, mandalas, dripping hand prints. As Wolfe put it, "The painting job … was sloppy, but one thing you had to say for it, it was freaking lurid. The manifest, the destination sign in the front, read: ‘Furthur,’ with two u’s."

The Merry Pranksters realized the symbolic value of their new vehicle immediately, on their first test-drive: "… [R]ight away this wild-looking thing with the wild-looking people was great for stirring up consternation and vague befuddling resentment among the citizens." For young people exploding out of their parents’ tightly regimented, Eisenhower-era society, there was an added thrill in repurposing an iconic image of childhood into a subversive symbol. What better than a crazily painted school bus, its eccentrically dressed, drug-addled riders hanging out the windows, to demonstrate to authorities that their worst fears had come to pass—the children had finally broken free and taken over.

The metaphor worked just as powerfully within the burgeoning counterculture: "You’re either on the bus or off the bus." Though Kesey first uttered this line literally, as a kind of shrug—any Prankster who wandered away at a gas station and got left behind would manage to find the bus again if that’s where they were meant to be—"on the bus" quickly came to mean not an actual place, but a state of mind. The metaphor perfectly captured the widespread sense that youth culture was hurtling full speed into the future—you either got it and were on board, opening yourself to an unrestricted embrace of the new, or you missed it and should be left behind with all those over 30 who couldn’t be trusted.

Everyone wanted to be "on the bus."

Metaphors aside, a vehicle with enough space for a whole group to ride and sleep in comfort was also just a really good idea.

Photo of Further Bus (the spelling was later changed), Merry Pranksters, and Ken Kesey. Photo by Harry Herd/Redferms.

And a needed one. Starting in the late 1960s, thousands of communes had begun to sprout up around the country. For their residents, replacing the nuclear family with an extended, communal family of dozens or hundreds also required vehicles to match. A bus meant not only that the whole group could fit and that you could sleep and walk around and even play music or make love during long days on the road, but that any parking lot or roadside field could become instant, free overnight lodgings. It was the perfect vehicle for any group crossing the country on an uncertain budget.

For a few groups, the vehicles themselves became home, at least for a time. Before settling permanently onto the 1,700 Tennessee acres that would become The Farm in 1971, several hundred followers of the charismatic pan-theological preacher Stephen Gaskin formed a caravan of 23 buses and refurbished mail trucks to join him on a cross-country speaking tour (image above). It was in one of these vehicles, stopped for the night, that Stephen’s wife, Ina May Gaskin, first helped a friend deliver her baby. By the end of the tour, 11 babies had been born and the group had found one of its callings. Forty years later, The Farm is still a major leader in natural childbirth practices and midwife training and Ina May is now the world’s most famous and influential midwife.

The Merry Pranksters realized the symbolic value of their new vehicle immediately, on their first test-drive: "…[R]ight away this wild-looking thing with the wild-looking people was great for stirring up consternation and vague befuddling resentment among the citizens."

The Hog Farm was another "mobile, hallucination-extended family," in the words of its founder Wavy Gravy. A few weeks before they became famous for providing the food, security, and "freak-out tents" that helped keep Woodstock calm and peaceful, the Hog Farm celebrated the summer solstice of 1969 at a festival in rural New Mexico. One of the highlights was a bus race pitting several Hog Farm buses against the original hippie bus, Furthur. As photographer Roberta Price described it, "[The] buses tilted dangerously as they careened around the course, tearing up the meadow. Furthur lost, handicapped by its fame. It was loaded down with far too many passengers, laughing, cheering, and hanging off its sides." Rolling Stone ran Kesey’s report: "They’re immense, these faded colorful wrecks filled with folly. People are climbing off and others are climbing on. It’s a test of passengers as much as drivers. The mood is pure: fatalistic optimism."

Other groups found uses for their buses that combined the practical with the artistic. The radical theater group Bread and Puppet relocated from New York City to Vermont in 1970 and has moved between the two settings ever since. In the winter, the buses still carry performers and their enormous papier-mâché puppets on tour; in the summer, they become the proscenium for the group’s famous Domestic Resurrection Circus (and, I can report as a former child puppeteer, there’s no better front row seat than the shade underneath the belly of the bus).

At least one group cultivated an entire aesthetic to match its nomadic lifestyle. "[The Gypsy Truckers] were a dashing group of banditos," remembered actor and activist Peter Coyote, "mustachioed, long hair tied back with bandanas, with conchos, intricately stamped buttons of silver running up the seams of their leather pants. The women wore long skirts over their boots and scarves around their heads; dozens of bracelets made their arms tinkle and ring." One of the goals of this look, like the buckskin and tipis adopted by other itinerant hippies, was to contrast as much as possible with the wearers’ own white-bread, suburban backgrounds. The Gypsy Truckers’ aesthetic inventiveness extended to their movable homes—in Coyote’s words, "beautifully crafted flatbed trucks with ornate wooden houses built on the frames sporting nifty gingerbread trim, giving them the ornate jewel-box complexity of fine fairy story illustrations."

Spread from Rolling Homes: Handmade Houses on Wheels, by photographer Jane Lidz.

For those not interested in traveling in one large group, or who wanted their participation in communal life to include private sleeping quarters and the ability to pick up and go at will, a house-vehicle made perfect sense.

"Our [communal] family joined the general migration from the Haight that began in 1967, after the Summer of Love," Coyote writes in his memoir, Sleeping Where I Fall. "Our diaspora spread north out of San Francisco and Highway 101 resembled the thread of a beaded necklace that connected us to family sites along its length … At every location people were perpetually busy repairing old trucks …"

"The vehicles of choice," according to Coyote, "were 1949 to 1954 Chevys and GMCs. Not only were they plentiful and the parts relatively interchangeable, but the six-cylinder Chevy 235 engine was a paragon of reliability that could be fixed in the dark and tuned without sophisticated tools."

In Living on the Earth, her 1970 illustrated instruction manual for the hyper-austere lifestyle some called "voluntary primitivism," alicia bay laurel [sic] devotes a whole page to mobile homes. A mattress and a sheet of plastic tossed over a frame in the bed of a pickup can become "a simple summer home with a good motor (and a view)." Buses and vans she dubs "the ritz," betraying a certain skepticism for all that metal between oneself and the open air: "A skylight of plexiglass helps," she notes.

Two other classic guides—also by women—added more instruction and creative detail for those interested in undertaking their own mobile home projects.

Rolling Homes: Handmade Houses on Wheels, by photographer Jane Lidz, features some of the decade’s most creative and gorgeous house-trucks.

The book’s lush color photos capture the builders’ whimsy and practical inventiveness. "[T]he two unwritten laws of living in a housetruck," Lidz writes, are:

"If it isn’t useful, you don’t need it.

If it doesn’t fit in the truck, you can’t have it."

One trucker-artist converted his drafting desk into a sturdy baby’s crib with removable bars that allowed it to double as a couch. In other vehicles displayed in the book, tiny lofts hold skylights and afghan-wrapped beds; rear-door porches carry rocking chairs, potted plants, wood stoves, and bicycles; in one bus, the doorway transforms, at rest, into a shower stall.

Spread from Rolling Homes: Handmade Houses on Wheels, by photographer Jane Lidz.

"Blending art with technology and economy with style," Lidz writes, "[house-trucks] satisfy the desire for freedom, simplicity and self-expression." In one photo, a loftside kerosene lamp sits atop a hardcover copy of Autobiography of a Yogi, itself atop the driver’s CB radio. "Old and new objects, romantic and practical approaches," she writes, "combine to create a patchwork effect that recalls memories of the past and enriches fantasies of future adventures on the road."

For Roll Your Own: A Complete Guide to Living in a Truck, Bus, Van or Camper, authors Jodi Palladini and Beverly Dubin drew on their own years-long experience of living on the road. In this compendium of practical advice, readers could learn where to find and what to pay for decommissioned mail vans (government auctions, $75 to $250); how best to fit and furnish them (adjustable built-ins, removable carpet); and the pros and cons of skylights ("The top half of a VW bus or ‘bug’ sliced off and welded to the roof of your rig is another popular possibility for added space and light," however, "in hot, sunny climates the skylight … may require an inside or outside tarp or the van becomes a rolling oven"). There was also a whole section devoted to the best ways to entertain and homeschool children during weeks or years on the road (puppets, board games, strict rules against pillow fights, registering your vehicle in a state without truancy laws).

The guide’s black and white illustrations mix shots of contemporary house-trucks with photos and drawings of nomads of yore—gypsies, Dust Bowl refugees, wagon train pioneers—placing their own movement firmly in the context of a long, romanticized history.

"[T]he two unwritten laws of living in a housetruck," Lidz writes, are: "If it isn’t useful, you don’t need it. If it doesn’t fit in the truck, you can’t have it."

In contrast with Furthur’s attention-grabbing, mid-1960s psychedelic explosion, counterculture builders embraced a quieter, more natural aesthetic as the 1970s went on, one that implied a spiritual connection with nature, even when rolling down a superhighway.

In keeping with counterculture design more generally, many truck-house builders favored natural and repurposed materials whenever possible.

Lofts, stained glass windows, hanging plants, cleverly built shelves and cabinets, and wood-paneled everything (including a sink counter, above) made some mobile houses indistinguishable from those built firmly on solid ground.

Even when their designs led them away from natural materials for aesthetic or practical reasons, builders often still prioritized a connection to the natural world. "I took up living in a polyethylene house built atop a dead Rambler, proof to my astounded eyes that both cars and plastic were good for something when the ingenuity of free men is given rein," wrote one visitor to the redwood forests of Mendocino in 1970. "The house was utterly clear on both walls and roof so I had the sense of living in the outdoors, which was never colder than 50 degrees F and always wet. A small Aladdin heater kept the dampness out and I was happy, as they used to say, as a pyg [sic] in shit. The folks who lived in that place … had of course the best of everything: water fit to drink, air easy to breathe, natural piety, whole grains for munchies, fresh-caught abalone, warm bread with butter and a certain unreluctant pursuit of the truth."

In their homes on wheels, the 1960s counterculture found a perfect expression of freedom as they saw it—not just the freedom of the open road or freedom from the rooted life of house and job, but also the freedom of design—to use materials in new ways and to stretch possibilities of homebuilding to the limits of their imaginations.

Editor: Sara Polsky
Lead image: Spread from Roll Your Own: The Complete Guide to Living in a Truck, Bus, Van or Camper by Jodi Pallidini and Beverly Dubin


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