We are one week in to our year long tour of North America. In some ways it feels as if we have been here for ages. In others, as we navigate past incredulous Americans in our big yellow bus, it feels as if we are total newbies. Who cares though? We are very happy to finally be here.
We’re leaving home, bye bye
Before we could get on the plane to America we had to go through a hectic, stressful month that was filled with anxiety, tears, late night DIY sessions, hours on the computer researching insurance, many trips to the dump and the charity shop, several long and stressful what’s app / skype conversations with Oquirrh Mountain Bus (the company doing up our skoolie) tackling last minute bus issues and so many leaving drinks that our livers felt sodden.
No matter how much you plan in advance, most of the effort for this kind of trip has to take place just before you leave. Guy became a DIY and property-management machine, working all hours to get our house ready for our tenants whilst also trying to sort out the damage and rental changeovers at our flats. My month was spent packing up our house and offloading the contents of our lives on whoever had space (good work Nicole and Ros!), getting the kids out of school and prepping Bill the campervan for his new life as a Quirky camper listing (which means you can hire him – check him out here).
When we shut the door on our home in Hove, closing that chapter of our lives that has lasted 8.5 years, it felt very strange. The boys found it pretty sad. A year seems forever when you are 6 and 8 and after an emotional departure from school, it was no great surprise to see that moving out upset them. Even though we know they are going to have the best adventure, it’s hard to see them crying because of the enormous upheaval you have brought into their lives.
Packing for a year in America
Things got a bit easier once we had left the house. Short of buying insurance, sorting out visas and flights, we hadn’t bothered preparing for America – the idea was that if we didn’t already own it or know about it, we could just buy it or research it when we arrived. We had 10 days before departure and so anything that might be useful was thrown in the van for sorting out at my mum’s house. Over the following 10 days we decanted, repacked, decanted, dumped stuff, repacked, weighed-in, decanted, repacked and so on.
The last time Guy and I travelled we had two rucksacks. 11 years later and with 2 boys in tow, we arrived with 4 x 23kg bags, 4 x 8kg bags and 2 car seat bags (free with most airlines). It was ridiculous that we had so much stuff to take to America and even more ridiculous that we were able to take that much luggage as our allowance. How on earth can people need that much space for a 2 week holiday?!
Getting to America
The flight to Orlando was long and dull – what flight isn’t – although we were pleasantly surprised with Thomas Cook. The seats were roomy and the snacks were plentiful. For £6 we could access the movie library so we plugged the kids in and barely heard from them for 8 hours! We arrived at what would have been a late night for them but was just lunchtime in America. The plan was to find a quiet corner in a transit lounge for them to nap for 3 hours, Orlando had other ideas. We had to pick up our luggage, deposit it again in about in a pile just before customs, then join the world’s longest customs queue to go back into the main airport where we had to check in again.
I was anxious about our America custom’s check. We have B2 visas which allow us to stay for a maximum of a year in the US. That doesn’t mean you get a year though. We had read in a few places that you are at the mercy of the security officer on the day and when we were beckoned to move forward in the queue by the grumpiest face I’ve seen in America, I didn’t feel too confident. We asked for a year and Mr Negativity did a lot of head shaking, telling us that our visas are not valid for more than 120 days etc. Eventually he said he’d stamp 6 months and we could reapply but he didn’t think it was likely we would be approved unless we had a VERY good reason for staying. Whatever you say Monsieur Miserable – we’ll take our chances.
Jet lag, film sets and big yellow buses
We inadvertently kicked jet lag in the face by arriving at our hotel at 11pm, having not really slept for 24 hours. I don’t know how the boys kept in such good humour. We all passed out and actually slept a regular American night and woke up on our new time zone.
We had a day to relax in SLC before picking up the bus, so we took to the streets to explore. We made it through deserted streets to Temple Square to see the big Mormon temple, then overheated and had to retreat into the mall. I overheard someone telling their daughter that it was 100 degrees Farenheit outside, which perhaps explains why no-one was outside. It is so strange to see a backdrop of snowy mountains when the air around you is so hot you feel as if you are melting.
All we could do was escape into the aircon of the planetarium, which proved to be a great choice – there were loads of amazing, free exhibits and a movie screen that covered a domed ceiling. We watched coral reefs from recliner chairs, flying above the water and diving deep into the sea. A world very different to the dry lands of SLC outside.
Finally, the school bus
We arranged to meet Blake from Oquirrh with our bus on day 2 of our American adventure. I felt sick to my core travelling in the taxi to his grandfather’s house. What would we do if we hated it? Worse still, what would we do if there was no bus? Were we going to find out we had been scammed? This was one of our biggest fears – we had, after all, found someone on the internet and paid out a whole lot of money without being able to see the work in person. It is exactly what people always say you shouldn’t do. Anxiety levels were high.
Of course it wasn’t completely foolhardy. We had done all of our due diligence.
- Oquirrh were new but the business was registered.
- Blake was happy for us to rewrite the contract and to get the liability insurance we requested.
- We spoke to another customer for a reference and she could not have been more positive
- Our friends Pip and Ade met him (and the bus) whilst travelling through SLC some months ago and gave both the thumbs up.
- The final lump-sum payment was to be made after we had seen the bus.
- Overall, Blake and Katie came across as trustworthy, good people and sometimes you have to go with your gut instincts about a person. We liked Blake.
Honk Honk – there is the bus!
We pulled up in our Uber and saw the bus from the road – we recognised the roof deck. What a relief. Blake then appeared, smiling, to welcome us to our new home. More relief!
We literally couldn’t wait to get inside. Blake did not send us many photos of the progress because he was so busy, so although we had seen the layout on paper and had seen some of the wooden structures for the sofa, kitchen and bunks, we had no idea what it looked like. It was so strange to step into the space and see it for real.
A tour of the inside
The floor is dark wood and the walls and ceiling are white. The ceiling has been lined with length-way planks, which stretch the space, it looks amazing. As you step past the driving seat, there is a big u-shaped sofa and a large dining table – plenty of room for dining and working. The kitchen has white cabinets with a gorgeous dark wood butcher block on top that matches the floor. The fridge has plenty of space (such a luxury to camp and have a good fridge) and we even have a full size cooker. Oh lordy, does that mean I have to cook?
Behind the kitchen area is the boys space, toilet and shower. We’d hoped that the bunks would be roomy enough for them to store their toys and to sit and read etc, but although super comfy to sleep in (and Kit’s favourite part of the bus), it’s a bit too coffin-like to hang out in. Luckily though, there is a reading nook opposite their bed. We’d wondered if that was wasted space when Blake suggested it, but he was totally right. It’s a great little space for two boys who like to snuggle up on cushions to read. Even better, it keeps them and their dusty bodies off our bed.
The shower is roomy and works well. We have hot water (propane heater) and there is good pressure. This was important to me – we plan to stay off-grid most of the time and I can only rough it long-term if there is an option of a proper shower. Of course it only works if we actually have water. Even though we have a 100 gallon fresh water tank, we need to check the levels in this heat – I learnt that lesson whilst we were at a remote campground in Utah where water was not available. It was so hot we had to preserve what was left of the tank and I had to stick my head in a stream to wash my hair – more ice-cream headache than Badedas moment.
The other necessity is a working toilet. We went for a Nature’s Head – well known by the skoolie community – a compost toilet. That sounds gross but it is the best option for a bus as it reduces the amount of waste water you accumulate and removes the need for chemicals. It doesn’t smell at all because the system has a filter that separates liquids from solids. The latter go into an area filled with peat moss and it can take about 90 ‘deposits’ before you need to change it, you just have to rotate it with a wheel on the side. It doesn’t smell at all. The liquids go into a bottle that you empty out in the toilet, or even as fertiliser. When we met with our headteacher at the school he suggested we incorporate everyday activities into our maths learning and so Guy is planning a question relating to the gallons of piss he will have emptied by the end of a year living in a bus… it’s pretty high (and pretty gross!).
At the back is our bed – a proper king size (or queen as they call it here). Blake installed a T.V here so that we can watch movies in the bedroom. There is also a roof hatch that we can climb up to enjoy the world’s best roof deck. It is lush up there – perfect for a sundowner (or a game of chequers if you are a 6 year old!). This was Guy’s long-awaited dream and it is both his and Soren’s favourite spot on the bus.
Mirrors are your friend
It’s pretty scary hitting the road in a 38ft, 14 tonne vehicle. You have to have a special HGV license to drive something of that size in the UK but in America, once the bus is registered as a personal vehicle, you can drive it with your standard license. Taking his family out on the road was the bit that Guy was anxious about. Blake had given him a quick lesson the day before in a parking lot – “rely on your mirrors to see where you are” – and he’d watched a few youtube videos (I kid you not!) about ‘squaring corners’, but that first journey was a test of his nerves. He nailed it though and we were on the road, just the 4 of us, ready to go camp America style. More on that next time!