"TAKE A RIDE ON THE COOL BUS"
A trip across the Americas in a converted schoolbus
PHOTOS + STORY BY: ALEX OETZELL
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In this week's installment of We Were Wanderers we travel with 24 year old Alex Oetzell, as she embarks on a road trip from Southern California East across the states in a self refurbished "skoolie", school bus. We see what life is really like on the road, long term and solo in a van.
As told by Alex Oetzell, this story has been edited for clarity.
I GREW UP IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, the land of eternal sunshine and beautiful people. Palm trees and the beach are my stomping ground but I wanted to see trees change color in the fall and snow come down in the winter. I had traveled all over Europe while I was studying abroad in school and it led me to thinking, I had never seen the United States.
My last month in Europe I was at a thrift shop in Amsterdam eavesdropping on a man's conversation with the shop owner. He was talking about his Ayahuasca trip and I was intrigued. We ended up chatting and he told me his life story. He had an average life, great corporate job, hot wife and a couple of cars. One morning he was driving to his office and in his rearview mirror he saw a hot air ballon, and just like that his life changed forever.
He thought, "That's where I need to be". He quit his job, took out a loan while he was selling everything and bought a hot air ballon.
He was a hot air ballon pilot for many years, then became a window washer for a year because he wanted to be outdoors. He worked many odd jobs, including a professional male escort (he wrote a book about that but I could not read it because it was in Dutch). Now, he's living in his van in Spain teaching surf.
I hear many of the same stories, of people breaking away from a normal life to do what they love, even though they don't make much money. I thought I wasn't going to make much money with my art degree anyway, so I thought, "Cheers let's go".
I chose to live out of a "skoolie" (school bus converted into a livable space) because I thought it would be the best way to see everything, and to save money. It was also a really fun project, gutting a school bus and building a bed and a kitchen. I had 70 square feet to live in and the project was relatively inexpensive.
It's funny because on the day I left, I was offered a job, and a few months before I had just started dating someone. In the grand scheme of things none of that is worth staying stagnant in one place for at this point in my life, fresh out of college.
I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the United States
I have seen beautiful parts of big cities and national parks, as well as some unsafe areas. Finding a place to park and stay the night is quite an adventure as well. I stay everywhere from neighborhoods to parks to Walmart parking lots and free camping spots. It gives me the freedom to stay in any city even if there are no vacancies at hotels. I have run into a few creepy situations being a solo girl but nothing dangerous... yet.
Check out freecampsites.net for camping spots.
"When I got the bus it was an old dirty kid's bus. There was even a mushroom growing in the back"
The hardest part of this bus journey was actually buying the bus. That was a huge step, and it was one of the biggest financial investments I have ever made (even thought $3,375 might not seem like a lot so someone else, it was for me) but after I spent the money and got the bus home, everything found its place.
I did everything the cheap way. I only used two tools, a drill and a circle saw. If you look at my "carpentry" its sloppy, things are far from perfect but I learned so much about working with different materials, problems solving and what makes me mad as hell (A stripped screw).
Taking out the seats was the first step. The bolts went all the way through the bus so one person had to stay inside the bus and ratchet the bolt while someone else went under the bus and held it in place. You could say my friends were constantly throwing me under the bus.
Everyone in the neighborhood knew who I was, that "chick with the bus"
I insulated the floor and walls and put down some awesome peel-and-stick laminate flooring, then painted some wood panels red and drilled them to the walls for insulation and aesthetics. From then on, I built a propane stove, sink that led to a PVC pipe water tank underneath, a compost toilet and a bed that is just my size. I painted the ceiling and boom! I had an empty room on wheels.
I got all sorts of supportive comments, as well as negative ones and most of them were based on me being a girl, doing this alone. Nice ones from, "I wish my son was more like you" to "Where is your husband? Is this your husband's bus?" to "This is a dangerous idea, traveling alone". One guy even said "Oh you're the girl with the bus! All my friends wanna get with you in the bus". How about no?
The bus breaks down from time to time but no matter how bad things seem like they are getting, things always get better.
I've been very lucky while traveling. My trip has brought me through California, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, New Orleans and up the East coast. Trusting strangers, eating expired food and taking little risks has been...risky.
One time the bus broke down on the freeway late at night somewhere between Denver and Colorado Springs. I was freakin' out, I just got the damn thing fixed. It looked bad at the moment. Real bad.
I called the mechanic all upset and he comes down and tows the thing back to the shop and him and his wife take me out to dinner. I get to take a dip into their jacuzzi with a mixed drink in hand, and they invite me to sleep in their house, with their 3 dogs and 1 cat on the same bed... it was awesome!
The bus was fixed the next day and its been running great ever since. It looked pretty bad at one moment, great the next. That's kind of how things work in life.
I've stopped in small towns to camp or get gas that were a little off the beaten path.
One small town in Texas had a single gas station. They had a sign that read "We don't call 911" over a picture of guns. We came across small towns like Dubois, welcoming you in with a "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN" right underneath the official welcome sign. The funniest thing I saw in Texas was when I went to visit a Civil War museum there. This museum was ALL ABOUT THE SOUTH, as if they did no wrong during the war. I don't even know if they mentioned slavery once.
I loved camping out in the bus in the Tetons. Driving a school bus through the mud and gravel on shitty terrain to get to a cool camping spot off the beaten track with my new friend Matt. All the books would fall off the shelves and the bus would get sticky in the mud. We would park and camp and wake up to a beautiful sunrise and hot coffee. That was the best.
If I had a dollar for everyone who told me they envied my lifestyle, I would be able to buy a bus that didn't break down in every damn state.
I guarantee that most people who tell me they envy all this have good jobs, kids or a reliable significant other. These are things I don't have, and am secretly envious of, but I make my choices. It's truly never too late for one to have the other. Money will come and go, that's a sure thing. I am not the only one living in a vehicle and so many have been living for much rougher than I. A lot of people do it because they don't have any other choice.
Where do I draw the line between being actually homeless and a trendy van dweller?
I'm having a hard time drawing the line in certain parts of my life and am having trouble seeing things in straight black and white. I just turned 24. Is this acceptable for my age or do I not give a single fuck about what society thinks a 24 year old person should be? Living in this grey area is fun as much as it can be stressful. I'm teetering on the edge of a personal financial disaster or achieving a newfound personal freedom.
Some people spend their lives seeking a meaning, but I'm not sure what mine is. I'm not sure if I even had one, but it's something I am comfortable with not knowing. I hope to learn and travel and hopefully inspire others to do so. I hope to find out about the world and all the beautiful people by diving in, and trying everything first hand.
I hate cheesy quotes but "life begins where your comfort zone ends" is a really good one I think about. Buy your bus, fly your hot air ballon, take that trip, if no one wants to go, go alone. Fuck it.
To see more details from her journey or donate to one of her charity projects visit Alex's site here.
Alex Oetzell is an artist, traveler and writer. You can find her INSTAGRAM here. Read more about her journeys, art and charity work here.