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Adapting to life in a Skoolie in California

California in a Skoolie – it was not what we expected.

Travelling in a Skoolie has meant a lot of compromises to the way in which we live our lives. As 2019 draws to a close and we reach our six-month anniversary (half-way through our trip), it seems fitting to reflect on some of those changes, particularly the difficult ones. I’m proud at how all four of us have more or less adapted to a transient lifestyle but don’t be fooled by the instagrammable loveliness – it has not all been smooth-sailing.

The challenges of Schoolbus life juxtapose nicely witreflections of our trip through California in a Skoolie, a state that required us to continually adapt our plans and way of life.

Redwood hike
Hiking through the Redwoods – pretty much the only bit of California in a Skoolie that we planned and completed.

We envisaged our route through the Golden State as a string of sunny beaches and glitzy cities full of beautiful people (as well as a fair amount of  suburban sprawl and 14-lane highways!).  It ended up as a trip through towering Redwoods, autumnal vineyards, sun-scorched gold-panning towns, breath-taking National Parks and barren plains filled with spiky cactus and dust clouds. We didn’t go near the cities and we barely saw the beaches.

The Top 10 changes and challenges of life in a Skoolie

Driving a skoolie
Life on the road – California in a Skoolie

1) Danger, danger….

The UK is not a dangerous place. America is. I’m not talking about people and weapons, that’s a whole other aspect of the U.S and one that we have not experienced during our time here ;I’m focussing on the animals.

Our wildlife encounters go way back to week one of our trip. Someone in the campsite told us to be careful with the kids running through the grass – they had seen a couple of rattlesnakes. We hadn’t even thought about scary creatures, let alone prepared for them. Research took us down a rabbit’s hole of fear – ticks, poison ivy, spiders… Argggghhh what the heck do they have in this country?!!


The raised pulses continued as we moved north and swapped snake danger for bears. In Montana, Guy and Soren looked up out of the hammock and saw a grizzly bear on his hind legs far too close for comfort. Reflecting afterwards, Guy said, “I suddenly realised I was not the largest predator for once. It adds a whole new level to wilderness hikes when you know that!”.

Once we got back down south and started heading inland toward the Sierra Nevada, we noticed a steady increase in animal warning signs on the noticeboards. “Watch out for rattlesnakes, spiders, coyotes, scorpions, mountain lions...” delete where appropriate (and add if appropriate!).

Watch out for the tarantula!

Even the creatures considered harmless to humans are adrenaline triggers. We were walking in Owl Canyon, a slot canyon in South East California, when Soren nearly trod on a hand-sized, hairy, male tarantula. Apparently they wait under rocks for the females… a comforting thought in a steep-sided canyon full of rocks.

Later, as Soren and I were jogging around the campsite and I was teaching him how to use exclamation marks in a sentence, I saw the long-awaited female scuttling ahead of us, smaller, faster and just as hairy. “Theres’s a tarantula exclamation mark” I shouted. He ignored me and nearly trod on another one. “Literally! Double exclamation mark!!! Move!!!”.

2) Weather

This was always meant to be a sunny trip – an endless summer. Of course long, dry days mean the land is ripe for the infamous California wild-fires during the Fall. Almost as soon as we crossed the border, our plan to head down the coast was foiled by flames.

Campsite California
California – idyllic one-minute, a raging inferno the next.

Huge swathes of the state were burning and the main freeway to San Francisco was blocked off, as well as our route on Highway 1. Fresno City had been evacuated and we met people in trailers who were just waiting to get the all clear to go home, with no idea what would be left of their lives when they returned.

On top of this, the power companies were in panic mode – if high winds are forecast that means higher than average fire risk. Last year they got sued for causing the fires, so rather than risk the same this year, they just switched power off for much of the state. Shops were closed, campsites were closed – it was complete shut-down.

Gold panning
Gold panning. Sadly the boys did not make their fortunes.

We ended up travelling inland to circumnavigate the infernos, looking at the burning glow as we drove across the freeway toward Nevada City, the start of our new route: south on Highway 49, famous for its gold-panning towns and the birth of the Californian gold rush.

The other weather-related shocker is that it’s cold! You don’t feel it so much in the day as the sun is invariably out – perfect fresh winter walking weather – but at night, it’s freezing.

3) 24/7 kid fest

On the roof of a skoolie
Sometimes the only way to get time-out from the kids is to climb on top of the bus – even if it is freezing.

Nowadays, we are with the children 24/7. There is no escape. We don’t even have our evenings because they rarely get to bed before 9.30pm and we are usually in bed not much later. When you live in one long room with curtain separators and no doors, it is pointless trying to have an adult conversation without one or other piping up with a “what are you talking about?”.

Luckily for us America is all for ‘family-time’. We had a brilliant chance to witness this during Halloween in Nevada City. A whole section of the historic Victorian downtown was closed off for trick-or-treating and every house was decorated up to the hilt. Haunted houses were fronted by ghosts handing out candy; spooky walkways beckoned you in and every family in the town was dressed to impress. Apart from us.

We weren’t sure whether we would find a place to trick or treat, even though the kids were desperate, so we didn’t have outfits. I grabbed an emergency bandage as we left the bus and walked into town, thinking I could create am impromptu mummy mask if the need arose. As the sun set and the town came alive in a explosion of Harry Potters, Beetlejuices, witches, ghouls, Disney characters and even a Tonya Harding complete with an ice skate covered in blood – I unravelled my costume only to find it was a hand bandage with a sewn-in pad for wounds. It looked like I’d tried to make a mask out of a sanitary towel. Sorry boys but it was very funny!

Driving lessons in a skoolie
When you only hang out with kids it’s easy to forget what is age-appropriate. Kit’s homeschooling in California involved driving the bus…

Spending all this time with kids sometimes means the lines between parent and child blur – we forget they are only 6 and 9. We have to remind ourselves that they are just kids and not our contemporaries. They have been party to conversations (and language!) that their tender ages should not normally have them dealing with. Most kids like to be treated like grown-ups but this doesn’t always work in their favour; I have several times found myself shouting at Kit to stop behaving like a child. I wonder if they will come back home a lot more grown up than their peers. Will Soz start up a conversation about the meaning of death at a sleepover or will Kit offer to host an after-school dinner party?!

4) Food, glorious food (and a quick cuppa)

Route 66
Get your kicks (or your burgers) on Route 66 – American food may be dull but they serve it up well. We found some classic American diners just off of Route 66.

I miss things like proper stinky cheese and crackers. The boys miss beans and marmite. Guy misses several cupboards and a fridge full of spices and sauces. He’s doing a good job of filling every available space with sauce bottles but it’s not the same.

A “quick cup of tea” was also a treat I didn’t appreciate enough. After waiting 15 minutes to boil the kettle, parched and desperate for that refreshing blend of leaves, it is a great disappointment to taste mud water. Guy has about 5 tea bags in each cup and it still doesn’t taste strong enough.

One area that has not suffered is our wine consumption. California has some great wineries and with Harvest Hosts we get the chance to park up at wineries for the night. We had a fabulous stay outside of Auburn – the owner let us park up in a spot overlooking the vineyard, gave us a bottle and directed us to a picnic area to enjoy our drinks as the sun set on the golden autumnal vines.

Vineyard in Californa
While the boys stayed in the bus and watched a movie, we pretended we were child-free and on a romantic weekend together in Tuscany.

5) Inside Out

We have swapped bricks and mortar for six wheels. A life previously spent indoors, has been swapped for one that is almost entirely outdoors.

Skoolie in California at night
Even if we are inside the bus, it’s not like being in a home. We are surrounded by windows and are exposed to the elements; we can see and feel the weather outside.

California has seen us parked up in old growth forests; alongside crashing coastlines and amongst the Joshua Trees in the desert. Our panoramic view is ever-changing and continually fascinating. In fact the only time we had nothing much to see is when we got hit by a zero visibility sand-storm and were blasted for 15 minutes.

Garage for work
Stuck in the world’s most boring town for a week as we waited for the bus to be fixed

Being outside is great most of the time but it doesn’t always work in our favour. California saw our first bus problems. After an incredible journey through the mountains of Yosemite, our brakes began to smoke. We had to hole up in Oakhurst, home of all things boring, and wait for almost a week to get them fixed. We went to the library for hours, the park for hours, the cheap supermarket for hours and there was still hours and hours and hours to kill. At night we slept in our wheel-less bus at the back of the garage. The glamour!

Cactus in Joshua tree
But when you can get outdoors to places like Joshua Tree National Park, it’s pretty special

All those indoor activities and screens we relied on at home are also gone. Our entertainment in California revolved largely out of finding stuff: sticks for wands and sand dollars on the beach; starfish in rock-pools and the tallest trees in the forest; climbers on El Capitan and gold in Coloma.

6) Me – time: solitude and exercise

Lying on trees
Even a quick rest gets interrupted

If escaping with your only other adult companion is impossible, getting away on your own should be a little simpler.

Or not.

‘Me time’, in my head, is about having a soak in a bath with a vino or a quiet read of a book. I’d also like to roll out my pilates mat and have a stretch.  As I found out early though, to my nostrils displeasure, you cannot put a Pilates mat on the floor of a bus without being far too close to the toilet.  You can’t always put it outside for fear of critters either. My Pilates mat has been put into the boot.

Super cool skoolie
We thought we’d see loads of people travelling in converted Skoolie. Turns out it is not so popular. We have only met a handful on our journey. Combine that with the British factor and America goes crazy for us!

We also face the challenge of being British in America in a super-cool Skoolie.  When people find out they are beside themselves with excitement. They just have to stop and chat. Guy has been asked the most random of questions and had to hold conversations on everything from Trump to Boris to speaking Porky Cheese (turned out, after some confusion, this was actually in reference to a traveller they had met who was also from Europe and who had spoken Portuguese!).

We have swapped squash and running for hiking and wave-chasing. Agate Beach, California, was a particularly good spot.

Exercise has taken a different course in America and California was no exception. We’ve upped the amount of walks to offset the increase in calories- California had a massive variety. We hiked in the Redwoods, volcanoes, desert and along the coast.

7) Screen-time

What’s an evening without Netflix? Well, it turns out, it is a time to drink wine and play cribbage. At least that is what we used to do in the early days when the kids went to bed at 8.30pm and the evenings were warm. Now it is colder and the kids don’t seem to go to bed until about 9.30pm, we just clear up and go to bed ourselves!

On the plus side, it has meant that I have spent more time reading with the boys. We also watch movies together – although the feminist in me is not sure we should be showing things like Indiana Jones with its hapless female leads (although when we saw the tarantula I did become a little shrieky and clingy!).

8) The loss of an electronic limb

Remote location California
Signal is not easy to come by when you are in locations like these – you may need to zoom in to see us! If you are really eagle-eyed you can see that the only other campers at this remote California site were the only other skoolie – travellers that we have met on this trip so far.

Without realising, our smart phones had become extensions to our arms; a useful electronic add-on that allowed us to search for the answer to any questions posed, play music through our bluetooth speaker, read the news and check emails. With great usefulness comes great wastefulness though. Free time becomes filled with inane scrolling through news pages and social media, following a bread-crumb trail of links and watching videos or memes about something vaguely amusing or clever. I found I couldn’t even walk to the shops without taking my phone to catch up on WhatsApp or to add something I didn’t even know I needed to an Amazon order.

Climbing at Joshua Tree
It’s so much better to contemplate the great outdoors rather than your mobile phone screen

Over in America we can’t use our phones that much, which means we don’t go online because the signal is unreliable or non-existent for huge chunks of the time. We have to use maps and books to plan our trip. As for news, we spot the occasional headline when we stop at a supermarket but we’re in America: yesterday I spotted that the Queen was about to die – she’s struggling with the horror of Andrew’s behaviour, who she is keeping in the Tower of London – and that William and Kate were due to be crowned. Meghan of course, the American heroine, has been cruelly snubbed. Brexit? What Brexit?!

Reading in a hammock
We are spending a fortune on reading materials – something I did not really include in the budget

One of the benefits of not having online access is our budget. I was a bit of an Amazon addict at home. I assumed it would be the same here – just a quick switch to .com and life continues as before. We simply can’t do shopping online here though. We’ve tried but it is impossible. We are foiled by a lack of delivery address – the post offices won’t accept UPS and that’s what Amazon like to use. Their solution is Amazon hubs – in Montana the closest hub was somewhere in California though! Now we are close to the hubs, they are full. You also need to be pretty specific on pick up date – that’s tricky for us. Other companies are just as bad – they won’t accept our orders because they refuse to accept our UK billing address or phone number on the order form. It is frustrating but it does mean we’ve returned to a simpler way of life. If it’s not in Walmart  we don’t get it.

Why buy a plastic Harry Potter wand from Amazon when the great outdoors is full of magical (and free) sticks!

Everything  also takes so much longer to sort out because we don’t have internet. I spent about two weeks of California using every possible moment of signal trying to research and solve our quickly-depleting leisure batteries. Reduced sunlight meant we kept running out of charge and had to pay extra for campsites with power. I solved the problem: many forum chats on solar controllers and inverters later, as well as long calculations about amperage, and I worked out we just needed to rewire the toilet fan, ensure our batteries ran a full charge cycle and didn’t drop below.12v and only charge our devices in the day. See – I am not a totally helpless Indiana Jones heroine… instead I’m just a total bore!

9) Squeaky clean standards

One of the biggest challenges of a trip like this has been dropping my standards of what is acceptable in terms of cleanliness and appearance.

We cut our own hair now – when you don’t have mirrors and can’t tell what it looks like, you might as well save the cash! 

Right from the beginning we had to make some massive compromises and a lot of this revolved around showering. We have a shower in the bus but it uses our propane up and it depends on whether we have enough fresh water in one tank and space for grey water in the other.

When we started in July, I hated not having a shower every morning and HAD to wash my hair every other day. By the time we were half way through California though, I realised that I’d stopped caring so much. My 4 days between showers has been the second biggest surprise to my pals (the first was when I announced I was pregnant with Kit!).

I get excited now when we go to a campsite with a shower block. I used to fear the cleanliness of a shared camping bathroom but since living in America my standards have dropped to a level in which I happily sit on the floor and admire their bleachy cleanliness whilst drying my hair underneath the hand-dryer. I’m not embarrassed when other campers come in – it’s way cringier when they bump into me carrying a eight-litre bottle of wee from our compost toilet to empty down the loo. It’s got to go somewhere folks!

Hairdryer hair
Classy lady!

Laundry is the other cleanliness factor – we only go every two to three weeks and so we re-wear our clothes as much as we can and then have to store them in an enormous stinky pile in the corner of our very small bedroom until we find a coin laundry with a big enough car park. Things never come out fresh smelling and we invariably find someone else’s odd socks mixed in our bundle.

Our first experience of American healthcare in California. Ouch for Soren’s knee and ouch for the budget!

Cleanliness is also a problem when you have boys that fall over. As we moved further into the Californian desert everything became dustier and dirtier. What do you do with all those filthy scraped legs and elbows if you don’t have a proper place to clean them up? Soren trumped the lot by flying off his bike into a patch of dusty gravel and sharp, slate-like rocks. The screams suggested a bigger than usual bash and, on retrieval, it was hospital-worthy. That meant packing up the bus and driving from our relatively remote camp to a town so he could get scrubbed clean and stitched up.

10) Happy and sad times

Yosemite falls
We are in the most incredibly beauty but we are a long way from home when things go wrong. 

Even with social media bringing us closer to friends around the world, you can’t physically be in two places at once. We’ve been a continent removed from close friends who have had babies; missed big birthday celebrations; have said no to attending the wedding of two of our closest friends (well 3 out of 4 of us have had to say no) and we all but banished Christmas for my mum and sister, who couldn’t see the point if the boys are not around.

We’ve also had to sit back and watch helplessly as family and friends have become seriously, and in some cases terminally, ill. It makes us feel a long way away and a little bit helpless to hear such sad news. All we can do is send messages via WhatsApp and that often doesn’t feel enough.

Sitting a top a rock at Joshua Tree
It is a reminder that we need to live our lives to the fullest – get out there and spend the day climbing on rocks with kids who still want to hang out with us!

Despite those challenges we both agree, no regrets.  Though our hearts and thoughts are with those we love when we do get bad news from home, the reminders of the fallibility of life reinforces our decision to keep on with the adventure. Carpe Diem folks, Carpe Diem!