America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Guest blog: a visitor’s viewpoint

When my daughter Ruth and her husband Guy started talking about taking the boys out of school and going travelling, I thought it was a great idea … but I guess I didn’t really think it could happen. A million and one reasons why it wouldn’t. But it did.

I should have known that any couple who got married on top of a mountain in Scotland would just keep on having adventures, kids or not! A whole year away – a whole year away from my two beautiful grandsons, let alone Daughter No. 1. Such conflicting feelings – proud of them for taking on this big adventure yet sad that they were going so far away. But I knew the latter sentiment, whilst understandable, was selfish, so of course they had my full support.

Tears tinged with excitement

I didn’t have to wait too long before I saw them all again and this time it would be in Canada – a special trip for my 70th birthday!

When they finally left it was very emotional – a year was such a long time. I was excited though too. I knew I had a big holiday out to visit them in Canada planned – joining them in Banff so we could drive the Icefields Parkway before heading toward Vancouver Island to go whale watching. I was excited about Canada but, aside from seeing them, I was really excited about the unique aspect of the trip: what 70 year old can say they have travelled across the Rockies in a school bus?!

My first bus experience

The Skoolie lifestyle was like comfortable camping.

I’d seen photos and videos of the bus so I sort of knew what to expect, but the real thing was so much better. Basic, yes. But comfortable, and once you got used to the confined space (and having to build the bed every night and take it down again in the morning) it worked very well.

We loved the outdoor lifestyle. Living in a bus meant we got a completely different view of Canada. Every day we woke up somewhere new, we watched wildlife from our window and ate meals next to the campfire. We loved it so much we decided that when we got home to the UK we would buy our own campervan.

It was great to be back with my boys

When it was time to head home again I hated having to leave them all. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to see them again but, three months later I was back . And this time we planned it as as a surprise.

A Texan arrival

The Texas trip was different to the Vancouver one. It wasn’t so much of a holiday – it was specifically to see them and I didn’t really care where they were. I wanted to fly out in January, partly because it was Soren’s birthday (and, let’s be honest, I’m always ready to take a trip!) and they worked out that they would be in Texas then. The weather isn’t ideal at that time of year and it wasn’t particularly a place I’d thought about visiting, I was happy to just fit in with their itinerary. It’s always interesting to go to another part of the world and I’d never been to Texas so let’s holiday y’all!

My second Skoolie experience

It was immediately clear that living on a bus was now ‘ordinary’ for the Chimps – all four of them had adapted to a life lived on the move in a confined space with very few material possessions and limited facilities.

Guy is an inventive and excellent cook, which is fortunate as they are managing on a very tight budget so eating out was a real luxury. And the oven is unpredictable, to say the least.

Showers, hair washing, laundry and other such activities happened when facilities were available, which was often irregularly. Back home they have a lovely house with every gadget and machine you could want to make life easier, a lovely big kitchen, a utility room with a tumble drier, a large bedroom with an ensuite bathroom, etc etc. On the bus they had none of this … and it didn’t seem to bother them at all. The whole family had completely scaled down their lives to the basics. And they seemed all the happier for it.

The compost toilet was great – it didn’t smell and it coped with all of us. I’m not sure I could cope long term with it though. I definitely wouldn’t want to be the one to empty it. Poor Guy!

The bigger challenges of Skoolie life

It hasn’t all been plain sailing and I could see where the changes in their lifestyle were posing challenges. Being together 24/7 puts a lot of strain on a family, and adding life on a bus into the equation makes it even harder. Ruth and Guy never have a chance to spend time just with each other, and that works both ways as Kit and Soren can’t ever get away from their parents! There are pressure points, it’s only to be expected.

It was lovely to go for long walks with Ruth – we made up for the deprivation of girlie chats!

Home schooling the boys is a definite problem area. Getting them to focus on their numeracy and literacy lessons whilst driving along the highway with all the interesting things to look at out of the window is very difficult. As with so many things in life, if you’re interested in something, you’ll remember it. If it’s boring or difficult, forget it … literally.

Meeting the alligators at Brazos Bend
Meeting the alligators at Brazos Bend – the boys were much more interested in learning when they were hands on.

It would be so easy to abandon lessons completely, but when they come home the boys have to go back to full time schooling and they need to be at the same level as, or close to, their contemporaries. It will be interesting to see how they’ll be able to use the extensive knowledge of the natural world that they’ve gained from living up close and personal in it.

An unforseen challenge

Heading to the airport this time was sad. I thought it was unlikely I would come back out but you never know. I certainly didn’t know that Coronavirus would make that impossible.

And how things change. As I left Texas, news of a virus in the Far East was just appearing, but that wouldn’t affect us, right? I did notice that the US airport security people were wearing face masks, but I thought that was just typical American over-reaction. Now, four months later, COVID19 has hit us and we no longer live in a free world. Ruth and Guy couldn’t get home even if they wanted to. But, strangely, they are doing self-isolation in reverse. Their nomadic way of life meant they’d had minimal contact with other people, either physically or virtually. Wifi and phone signals were patchy, to say the least, and the State Park campsites allowed for plenty of space between visitors. When lockdown happened they were on a Skoolie Homestead in Georgia, planning to stay a few days, do some work on the bus, then move on. Best laid plans of mice and men ….

Two months’ later and they’re still there, along with a few other Skoolie families, a swimming pool, Wifi and Netflix! And endless on-line resources for home schooling. But that is not what this trip was about and Ruth and Guy have got itchy feet again – they don’t want the last couple of months of their great adventure to finish with a whimper instead of a bang. Part of me wishes they would stay – they are safe and contactable – but I understand why they have made the decision to isolate on the go.

What do I think about the Chimps’ return?

Sitting on a box in a carpark
The reality of living in bus, waking up in a car park and having to sit in a certain place to get phone connection

At home, in a ‘normal’ life, there are things you can’t imagine living without. A daily shower. A pint of draught beer. A decent cuppa. Cadbury’s chocolate. Your own private space. New clothes. Clean clothes! But the Chimps all seemed to accept these deprivations as the price they were willing to pay to embrace their new way of life. When I think back to their lifestyle at home, it amazes me that they gave it all up to live on a bus. But then again, the motivation behind this whole trip was that they wanted a different way of life from the very comfortable but predictable one they already had. They’ve certainly got that. But eventually they have to come home and they’re going to have to think very hard about what happens then.

It would be too easy to slip back into that old, comfortable life but I think they will try hard not to let this happen. I’m so very proud of what they’ve achieved. They had the courage to follow their dream, and I have total confidence that whatever they decide to do moving forward – and Ruth and Guy are always full of crazy ideas – they will succeed and be happy. And as for Kit and Soren – right now they can’t wait to get back to their friends and family (and Cadbury’s chocolate), but in time they’ll look back on their year on the Skoolie and realise how much fun they had and how much they learnt without even realising it.

So this bus is moving on. Now the State Parks are open again they can finish their trip. Self isolation will be manageable when they’re on the move – thank goodness the bus has its own shower and toilet – and as for clean clothes, who cares? Certainly not Kit and Soren! There are so many ifs and buts and unknowns, but on 9 July the Travelling Chimps will hopefully be on their way back to the UK, a very different environment to the one they left a year before. But I for one will be very happy knowing they’re safely home – and within hugging distance. I may never let go!