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Hitting the road

Why “skoolies” are one of the fastest-growing subsets of the van life community

I entered the Dougan Creek Campground in southern Washington by hairpin switchbacks and dirt roads so narrow my sideview mirrors brushed foliage. As I wound through the grounds without cell service, I was on the lookout for a white school bus called the Bus Code, named for the samurai code of honor called bushido. Campers lounged under R.V. awnings and played cards at picnic tables. The Bus Code sat parked across from an outhouse swarming with flies. I pulled up, mistaking the tinted windows to mean the family wasn’t home until Danny Mulvihill poked his head through one of the top panes. “Come on in,” he said.

The Bus Code was long and dim, with two very bright bulbs on the ceiling that looked like interrogation lights. Behind the driver’s seat, an unlit wood stove spanned the width of a large lounge chair. A stuffed bear slumped on the kitchen counter and a hodgepodge of produce—a bunch of bananas, one pepper, a loose orange, and a bag of lettuce—hung from a metal rack. Farther back, a broken washer and dryer were being used for storage beside a bunk bed, a compostable toilet, and a wooden frame that would one day be a shower, but which for now was where the dog slept. The Bus Code had little decor. There was a wall tapestry in the bathroom with a poem by the Dalai Lama, souvenir fridge magnets shaped like palm trees and Hawaiian shirts, and a skateboard over the windshield that said “Skate Free.”

Less than a year after they bought a house in Spokane to settle down with their two young daughters, Danny and his wife, Alex, got bored. Danny hated his job. Alex couldn’t bear the months of rain. The couple, who married five months after meeting at a hostel in Mexico, preferred to travel, live spontaneously, and reside in warm places. They’ve lived in Reno, Austin, Ecuador, Peru, West Palm Beach, and Santiago. One day, they came upon bus conversion videos on YouTube featuring families talking about air hoses and wanderlust and couches that turn down into beds. Convinced that becoming skoolies—people who live mobile lives in converted school buses—would afford them freedom and adventure, they sprung for a white 36-foot 1995 Thomas Built Saf-T-Liner for $4,500. They spent about $20,000 and seven cold Northwestern months converting the Bus Code. They pulled their older daughter, Amaia, from kindergarten and, last June, rented out their house. In the first three months they lived in the Bus Code, they hopscotched from campsite to campsite across Washington using a $35 yearly Discover Pass, which allowed them to stay in Department of Natural Resources campsites at no additional cost. In 55 days, they spent zero money on lodging. (They did have to sleep in a Home Depot parking lot one night when all the nearby campsites were full.)

Interior of the Schannep family bus.

I took a seat on the couch. As a non-skoolie, I wanted to understand why a family would willingly forsake modern-day conveniences and what the lifestyle offered that couldn’t be attained in a stationary life. It isn’t easy tracking down skoolies, who are nomadic and impulsive by nature, unsure how long they’ll stay in one place. They park on remote land managed by the Bureau of Land Management or in cell service-less forests. Alex and Danny were conveniently camped within driving distance of me, so I seized the opportunity to meet them. For the next four hours, we hung out and ate mushroom tacos. Danny works 10 hours a week as a software engineer, for $100 an hour, but wants to work less. To obtain that goal, the family is on a strict expense budget of $2,000 a month.

Before the sun set, we walked to the river and built rock castles. Amaia held my hand and showed me her new black boots from Goodwill. “I like that they don’t look like they’re from Goodwill,” she said. Amaia is unschooled, which means she doesn’t follow a curriculum but learns by asking questions. By Danny’s account, she will complete as much homework in a year as most kids do in a month. “I don’t give a shit what she learns as long as she develops the ability to learn,” he said, which he evaluates based off her reading and math levels in comparison to other kids they meet on the road. In a few years, he and Alex might look at the common core requirements, but for now, her schooling is informal and unstructured.

By 8 p.m., the girls tucked into their bunks. Danny and Alex retired to their twin bed between the Bus Code’s engine and Danny’s “money making station” (desk with computer). I checked my phone. Still no service. It was a Saturday night and I was feeling restless. I wanted to go for a drink, but living like a skoolie an hour from the city, that idea wasn’t feasible. Without a book or a magazine, I lay in the pitch black under the Bus Code’s emergency exit latch thinking about how Danny locked the front door by sliding a thin block of wood through the handles. He assured me he once jiggled the block as a security test. Plus, the safe in back held his handgun. And they had the dog. “I was a little worried because it was really loose,” he said.

Skoolie life is built on the idea that happiness and desk jobs are like oil and water. A fast-growing branch of the van life community, many of them millennial parents, is trading its homes and jobs to live in school buses in rebuff of the so-called American dream. Skoolies believe in a life free of picket fences, 401Ks, and 30-year mortgages—all the securities their baby boomer parents coveted. “We knew early on we wanted a different life than our parents,” says Amanda Smith, who lives on the Giant White Bussalo with her family of five. “Our parents just worked nonstop every day. We didn’t want to do the ‘you get married, buy a house, have babies, and pay off your debt the rest of your life.’”

Amanda’s husband, Preston, who sold his business making mobile escape rooms, agrees. “My goal is to retire at 35,” he says.

Skoolies set up around the central gathering space at Skooliepalooza.
Each bus arrives at the annual Skooliepalooza with its own social media identity and presence.

Many skoolies believe classrooms, cubicles, and non-mobile homes quite literally confine the body. “To have to send [my kids] away for eight to 10 hours, five days a week, that would freak me out having them away for so long in that grind,” says Michelle Lawson, a skoolie mother of seven. “It seems so prison-like to me.” Instead, skoolie children learn by writing about sea creatures, visiting history museums, or collecting stamps on their National Parks Passports. And so by turning an icon of suburban education into vehicles of abandon, skoolie parents can homeschool their children while also giving a middle finger to the establishment.

None of the parents I interviewed, most of whom were white, were planning for old age or for what happens when their kids grow up. “We plan to do it as long as it works,” says Julie Good, who lives in the Good News Bus with her husband and eight children. (To accommodate their growing family, they recently upgraded to a 38-foot Thomas HDX with six bunks, a master bedroom, and a dining table that converts into a bed.) Parents often work remotely, freelance, or have the luxury to quit their jobs. I spoke with a doula, a wedding photographer, a set designer, a financial advisor, a play director, a woman who sells essential oils, and a couple that makes lotion to sell at tiny house festivals. Most people use the money from selling their homes to buy and renovate their buses. Without a mortgage or electricity bills on the bus, they can survive financially by working on the road. Others have more savings to rely on. One dad was a medically retired police officer who received a monthly pension that paid for the lifestyle.

Working to retire is not part of the plan. “My mom worked her butt off to support the two of us and now being her in her 50s, she’s still working her butt off to pay for her house and she has no retirement plans and no life experiences,” says Malory Fox, a mom converting a bus. “I don’t want that lifestyle. This world is huge. Why stay in one state your whole life when you could see everything?”

Derek Cobia, a skoolie dad who burned out from sitting in 50 miles of traffic each day as a financial adviser, says retirement is a “mythological place that rarely ends up working out as planned.” Now he works 70 percent less and the family has only $1,200 in monthly costs. “If I’m not able to ‘retire,’” he says, “then I still would have lived more years and a more free life than most people.”

Even through an Instagram filter, today’s skoolies (also the nickname for the converted bus itself) still reflect the 1960s hippie America that popularized the lifestyle. The 1939 International Harvester school bus that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters drove cross-country sounds very similar to today’s converted buses both in function and character. “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,” wrote Tom Wolfe in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. “They had all voluntarily embarked upon a trip and a state of consciousness that was ‘crazy’ by ordinary standards.”

The Smith family bus is outfitted for the needs of three children and two adults.

There’s long been a belief that school bus homes, and nomadism more broadly, don’t fit society’s ideals of what constitutes a successful, healthy life. Graham Pruss, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington studying vehicle residency, calls this the ‘nomadic bias.’ “All the things we see are good—like having a job, house, family, education—they are all based on being settled,” he says. “That reinforces this idea that in order to be a good person you need to be settled down.”

Some skoolies struggle with the nomadic bias. “It feels like people look down on you,” says Amanda Bockelie, who lives on the Broccoli Bus with her husband and four kids. Several skoolie families told me they’ve been turned away from R.V. parks. “It doesn’t matter how nice your conversion is,” says Justin McCormick, a skoolie dad of five. “They want to keep a certain standard.” This winter, I sat in a bus as two young skoolie couples (not parents) griped about how a van woman at a meet-up sent them a threatening note following a strobe light mishap. One man seemed to think that homeless people who live in buses lowered the reputation of skoolies among van lifers. “Well, some people aren’t living in a bus that’s a home, but in a bus,” he says. “So, they’re just homeless in a bus.”

I came upon one such family on a Friday last August as I drove south through Oregon to see a friend. The flat, dusty stretch of Interstate 5 was clogged with logging trucks, Winnebago motor homes, and cars cruising the 65 mph speed limit. With all the travelers, I wondered whether I might see a #skoolieinthewild. Spotting one is a hobby, like bird watching, played by bus enthusiasts. Many post their sightings to the Skoolie Nation Facebook group, hoping the owner is one of the 16,733 members (“Chicagoland area. You on here? Slick rig!”).

I pulled off at a rest area and as I searched for a parking spot, I saw it. A #skoolieinthewild. The bus was painted in rainbow stripes and said “Here we go again” in white cursive on the front. I parked and walked to inspect it. The curtains were drawn, and a gray pitbull stared out the windshield. I looked around for the owners. Near the restroom, road trippers examined the state map. A veteran in a wheelchair asked passersby for money. And underneath the bathroom awning, a woman and three children sat shielded from the sun. A cardboard sign lay by their feet. “Family of five living in a bus. Staying alive. Anything is a blessing! Food, fuel, $, a place to park our bus, world peace, brotherly love,” it read.

The woman’s name was Spring, and her husband, who approached shortly after me, introduced himself as Ash Lyndon. The sides of his head were shaved, the chipmunk-brown hair on top pulled into a long ponytail. He wore an earring and army pants and was missing a front tooth. When the job market collapsed in 2008, Ash was working as a roofer and plumber in Florida. The work disappeared, so he spent his tax refund to convert a bus and set off across America with his family to find temp jobs. They hadn’t become skoolies by choice.

Now, a decade later, Ash and Spring had become sick of the lifestyle. They were parked at the rest stop, they said, because Eugene officials kicked them out of the city under the 4.815 ordinance, enacted in 1996, which prohibits camping on any sidewalk, street, lane, alley, park, or other publicly owned property. Then a cranky homeowner had shooed them off his sidewalk and they now needed money for gas. “With buses, it’s always a stereotypical thing,” said Ash. “If they see a bus, they immediately think, ‘dirty hippie.’” He wanted to find a job in forestry or trucking, something where he could use his bus driving skills “so we don’t ever have to do this again.” When I asked about getting in touch, he gave me a number—along with a warning. “In about two weeks we’re going to disappear,” he said.

Several months later, I called the number, which rang through to a man’s voice recording. “Thanks for calling. If you’d like to leave a voicemail, you can leave a message after the tone.” The voice sounded somber and resentful, a lot like Ash’s. I never heard back.

When I visited the Mulvihills last September, their fridge didn’t work, power supplied by solar panels had gone out for two weeks, and they brushed their teeth using a trickle of water from the 44-gallon tank. Danny had recently gone 12 days without a shower. Alex washed her hair outside in a bucket. “Sometimes I go into the city and I’m wearing flip-flops and I look down and I’m like, ‘Oh man, my feet are dirty, dude,’” said Danny.

The Smith family posing outside their bus.

Some skoolie parents admitted they missed small aspects of their stationary life, like ice trays and Thai restaurants. If asked, families expressed their loneliness on the road. “The coffee house or the brewery or the neighbors down the street you say ‘Hi’ to, you don’t have that on the bus,” says Aaron Tokarz, a skoolie dad of five who is a retired police officer. “It’s a tough thing.”

Some hardly see the downsides, though. “The only contrast I can see the positive side of being located in one spot is going grocery shopping,” says Julie Good. “When you go to a new grocery store it takes twice as long.”

I kept a list on my phone, neither in full nor applicable to all skoolies, of sacrifices I experienced or noticed while living the skoolie life: hot water, hot showers, long showers, inside showers, showers, full-length mirrors, bathroom sinks, bathroom doors, kitchen tables, bedrooms, bedroom doors, washer, dryer, coffee, sex, loud sex, babysitters, date nights, alarm systems, carbon monoxide detectors, smoke detectors, ovens, toilets, toilets that flush, the Oscars, Wi-Fi, parallel parking, air travel, baths, mail, magazine subscriptions, Amazon, soap, heat, air conditioning, the gym, neighbors, block parties, Netflix, curling irons.

For the Browns, the downsides became unbearable. Last September, Chad Brown uploaded a video to YouTube about why his family decided to sell their bus, Buster, after only two months and $20,000 spent. In the video, Brown chalked the decision up to his difficulty maneuvering Buster, missing must-see sites along the Oregon coast, and his physical discomfort while driving.

Bus renovations take all forms, sizes, and colors to sustain the needs of their occupants.

I couldn’t imagine those were the only reasons. So I called Brown, whom I had spoken to before. In our first interview, he said his kids loved being homeschooled. On the phone now, he admitted he and his wife found teaching to be challenging and better suited for someone outside the family. They also felt isolated and ate up their free time figuring out where to park, where to fuel up, and where to dump their water tank. Brown put Buster up for sale for $40,000. Three months later, he sold it for a lowly $17,000. The family rented a home with money from Brown’s work as a photographer and videographer, but had to persuade administrators to enroll their three kids partway through the school year. “There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors the way people are talking about skoolie life. I think it’s become a way for people to escape,” said Brown. “This supposed freedom that you have, I think you’re exchanging your prisons for others.”

During a rainstorm in January, Rob Schannep jockeyed his bus, Clarity, through arrivals at the San Diego Airport, unable to pull over and stop with all the other pickups. As Clarity continued to roll along, his wife, Robin, hoisted me up onto the steps in her bare feet, a nose ring, and a long-sleeve T-shirt that said, “Love writes a beautiful story.” Their four kids, aged 2 to 8 and all with long, cherubic blonde hair, sat on the couch. Miriam, the youngest of the four, was strapped in a makeshift car seat concoction with the seat belt fastened to the ceiling. She was born on a commune in Tennessee called the Farm, famous for midwifery and as the destination of a 1971 school bus caravan. As we headed east, the tea kettle rattled on the burner and caught fire. The bunkroom door swung open, the hanging succulents swayed, and a red prayer candle fell off the table. At one point during the drive, Clarity’s tailpipe snapped in two and rolled down the road. “I know what we’re doing is odd,” said Robin.

We were on our way to Skooliepalooza, a bus meet-up in Quartzsite, Arizona. The palooza began in 2017 as part of a well-known vehicle gathering called Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, but broke off to become a stand-alone event. The first year, 22 buses attended. This year, 114. Families are a target demographic. Nick West, one of the organizers, told me skoolie children offer “the best hope for any growth in Skooliepalooza.”

When we arrived, about a dozen buses were parked in a circle around a campfire. Rob and Robin peeked out the window, curious to know who was running a generator and who wasn’t. They gossiped about which skoolies were dating, showed me an Instagram picture of a chiseled male skoolie modeling shirtless, and discussed the annoying possibility of mud gunking up Clarity’s belly. Boondocking like this—camping off the grid—takes a toll on the bus. Water gets low and the fridge drains energy if it’s plugged in too long. After a day, Clarity’s toilet started to smell and needed to be dumped.

Kids play with giant bubbles in the Skooliepalooza community area.

The palooza was, essentially, a week-long vacation that no one had to take off work to attend. Skoolies exchanged intel and tips. The Berkey water filter was the hottest thing to own. Unsure of each other’s real names, they called each other by their Instagram handles. They cooked dinner and drank beer. They showed off their builds. One had a roof deck with tanning chairs. Another was wood-paneled. A third featured a hammock chair in the living room. Kids blew bubbles and played tag outside. At night, there was a drum circle.

One night, Amanda Bockelie of the Broccoli Bus cupped a Thermos by the fire looking glum. Her husband, Aaron, had been laid off a few hours ago. The Bockelies had lived full-time in the bus for four months and Amanda was frustrated by the lack of Wi-Fi on the road, putting the curtains up every night, and getting her four kids to do their homework. “Maybe we need to get back in line and get the white fence and live the American dream,” she said. But they spent thousands of dollars on the rebuild and didn’t have the money for a down payment. She also seemed to want to prove she had made the right choice. At one point, she became star-struck by an Instagram-famous couple wearing leggings and Patagonia named Eamon and Bec. She asked them to pose so she could send a picture to her mom, who had told her skoolie life was a disservice to her children.

The next day, I approached a man named Jess Reese, who stood outside his bus, R2, handing out veggie burgers to his three kids and some of their new friends. Behind them, a serious group effort was underway to free a vehicle stuck in the mud. Reese is pagan and was dressed in a sweatshirt with multicolored threads and yogi pants. He and his wife, Molly, had attempted “the American dream or whatever” and realized it was a farce. They sold the house and now homeschool the kids and sell gems and fabrics. R2’s dashboard was decorated with bowls of crystals. “People say kids are getting socialized in school, and where has that led us?” he said. “We’ve trashed the environment and dumbed off a generation that doesn’t know about their food.” He doesn’t understand why holidays like Christmas are set aside as “family time,” which he believes should occur every day. He looked out over the horizon. “Skooliepalooza lasts a week. We might sit here for three weeks,” he said. “Our time is our own.”

The first day of Skooliepalooza concludes with a dramatic Arizona sunset and community bonfire.

Skoolies believe they’re using their time more wisely now than in their “settled” lives. But when I asked Danny what he did with his new time, he wasn’t sure. “I’ve been trying to figure that out a little bit,” he said. Even still, he wanted to cut back his hours. As someone who gets anxious not working—either on vacation, being sick, or even taking a long lunch—I became fixated with trying to understand this calm rejection of a society that equates stepping back with falling behind. Several skoolie parents asked if I wanted to live on a bus someday. I told them no. I’d be bored, fidgety, and worried about wasting time—which is how skoolies felt in their more traditional lives. Bus life, then, seems like another symptom of our competitive culture. We’re compelled to fill our time doing something, anything, even if we fill it by moving from place to place. Otherwise we feel we’ve failed.

One night at Skooliepalooza, I sat in Clarity with Rob and Robin discussing time. Rob, who is a financial planner, thinks being available for his children is a good use of time. So is taking a walk on the beach at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday. Robin doesn’t care how her kids spend their time, so long as they’re leading a “slow and gentle” life. This can include looking at bugs if they want. Robin paused to text some skoolie friends for vodka. No one had any. This sort of lifestyle is not to be confused with laziness, she said. “It’s not like we’re sitting at home twiddling our thumbs.”

Britta Lokting is a journalist based in New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, the Baffler, and elsewhere.


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