SkoolieStays

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News Skoolie Stays Sustainable glamping

Reduce, re-use and recycle

Reduce, reuse and recycle

How we turned trash into treasure, taking a bus off the roads and turning it into a sustainable glamping destination.

Typing in a skoolie

By Ruth

The Skoolie Stays bus is regularly recognised as a unique place to stay, but the initial focus is usually on its iconic exterior. Dig a little deeper and you will find that there is more to take away from a weekend in the Skoolie Stays bus than a photograph of your other half in the driver’s seat!

 

 

As an off-grid tiny home, we do our best to educate our guests about a lifestyle with the three R’s at its core: reduce, re-use, recycle. When they leave, they take home an understanding that going green is not a compromise, it’s a positive lifestyle choice.

Waste not, want not

A very different retirement

Chicken buses central america
Blinged out with a new paint job, lights and stereos, ‘chicken buses’, as travellers and locals call them, speed down the streets packing in as many people as possible on their routes

When you think about environmentally-friendly glamping units, you probably have in mind a wooden ‘eco’ pod or a simple yurt, but the battle to save the planet does not stop with the use of less impactful materials. We need to look at how we can re-use our waste, taking something no longer deemed useful and bringing it back to life. We need to work with the old instead of buying new.  

 

After approximately 10-12 years, the majority of American school buses are retired from service. This is partly because they do not meet the tight standards set by the EPA on emissions. Rather than scrap them, they are auctioned off or sold by dealers, which seems like great news until you realise that the vast majority reappear in Central or South America as public transport.  With less stringent rules on pollutants,  the diesel flows. the engines are pushed hard and the emissions statistics get higher and higher. Possibly 850,000 miles or more are squeezed out of these million mile engines if they head over that southern US border. 

 

 

It’s a different story for our Skoolie. Instead of glitz in Guatemala, honking in Honduras, chaos in Costa Rica or pollution in Panama, we sit sedately in Sussex. We don’t drive it on the roads, apart from the occasional garage trip, so there’s no speeding from A to B. Quite the opposite – we encourage people to slow down their busy lives to a stop. Crucially, we don’t damage the environment we exist in. Instead, we encourage people to enjoy the beautiful South Downs National Park, with its protected ecology and landscape, and educate them about off-grid living. We are also working hard to offset the emissions created by its journey to the UK, supporting rewilding projects and beach / cliff clean-ups. 

Off-grid living​

Addressing the impact of water, waste and power​

Solar panels on a skoolie
Being off grid is a great way to reduce carbon emissions.

From the start of our build, we knew we wanted the Skoolie to be off grid. using renewable energy and minimising the amount of water required, not only helps the planet, it saves money and allows us the freedom to quietly exist in rural locations with no access to infrastructure. 

 

 

Solar power is an energy efficient option for off-grid homes, with little waste. We installed six panels, each on a hinge so they can be angled to make the most of the low winter sun. An onboard inverter manages the solar energy, ensuring the batteries stay full, so we have plenty of power for lights, the fridge  and several USB charge points on the bus for phones, laptops etc. 

 

To reduce our water intake, we focused on where most water is wasted: the bathroom. Along with a lo-flow eco shower, we invested in a top-of-the-range compost loo. Years of horrible festival long-drop toilets have given compost toilets a bad reputation for being smelly and dirty, but having lived with a modern one in America for a year,  we know that this is not the case anymore. Waterless toilets massively reduce water consumption and reduce waste and our Simploo toilet is sleek and stylish, with an inbuilt fan that ensures no bad smells.

Infographic about compost toilets

Environmental inspiration

Looking toward nature to find design solutions

Wooden design
Repurposing old doors and furniture allowed us to create stunning wooden design details

Wherever we could, we chose eco products to help extend the bus’ life and keep her warm and cosy inside. This wasn’t a compromise – many of the alternatives are better than their chemical and manmade rivals. Nature does, after all, know best.

 

Lanoguard, a sheep’s wool derived rust protector, was sprayed on the underbelly to prevent rust and we used Cumbrian sheep’s wool insulation to insulate the walls and ceiling. For a few days it did indeed smell like a farmyard!

 

FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) wood was used throughout, with pine cladding on the ceiling and sustainable ply planks on the walls. Hardwood pallets were planed back so they could be used as framing for the roof hatches and old American oak doors, donated from a period renovation, were dismantled and planed down to make a feature wall. We found a home for a water-damaged teak futon, which was taken apart and brought back to life as a sliding barn door for the bathroom.

 

 

At the end of the project, we even took the OSB board we had used as a cutting table and chopped it into shelves, held up by a chunky bit of driftwood we found on the beach.

Out with the old…. repurpose it as new

Not fit for purpose is different to not fit for use

penny kitchen countertop
An old jar of pennies added copper tones to our epoxy kitchen counter

We wanted to reuse as much as we could, both from the original bus but also repurpose items that others had deemed to be at the end of their life.

 

With plenty of bus seats at our disposal, it made sense to repurpose a couple and use them to create a dining area. Each seat was cut down to 2/3 its original size, then welded together to form that classic curve. We reupholstered them in vinyl to create our own American-diner. The look was finished off with a recycled school desk from Hove Park School from the Wood Recycling Store, held up by a hydraulic strut that started life as part of the disabled chair leg.

Diner table in Skoolie
A genuine old-school desk propped up with the hydraulic ram from the original chair lift

The rear-view mirror became part of a feature wall and an old filing cabinet and kitchen splashback were spruced up to add a metallic dimension to our entrance steps. The wood, mentioned above, and copper tones of the epoxy penny countertop, give it a warm and natural feel.

 

Scouring through other people’s trash produced bus treasure which came with fascinating stories. Our perfectly-sized Scandi leather sofa belonged to a local man who would chill out and relax on it as the tunes played from his fabulous Wurlitzer. Our retro leather pouffe came from a lady who was thrilled to find out that her beloved footstool (which didn’t fit her house) was going to move to a Skoolie. She was so inspired by our Skoolie that she went on to become one of our first bookings!

 

If you would like to book a stay on our Skoolie Stays bus to find out  more about our off-grid initiatives and eco-credentials, get in touch!

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News Skoolie Stays

From Firle to Beachy Head

From Firle to Beachy Head

After an incredible first season, it was time for the Skoolie to hit the road again

Last week we moved the Skoolie to our new location at Beachy Head. The sun was out and the drive over Seven Sisters, past the silvery swirls of the Cuckmere river, was stunning. As we drove through small villages, cars honked us and people waved, thrilled by the sight of an American yellow school bus on their road. We felt pretty happy. Our last Firle guest had given us a 5 star review, continuing our run of lovely feedback from guests,  and a news alert had popped up to tell us that not only had we featured in the i newspaper as an autumn break, we were in the Guardian travel tips for winter glamping too.  Not bad for a first season!

 

 

But what comes next?

All the fun at Firle

A fantastic first season on the farm

Skoolie with sheep
Life on Firle's busy farms was always interesting

We moved to Firle Estate, near Lewes, in June. They were keen to try glamping and we were more than happy to move into their beautiful spot (all 7000 acres of it) that spans the South Downs. We got some strange looks as we turned down the tiny lanes in our enormous yellow bus, but we are used to turning heads on the road – everywhere we go, people stop and stare!

 

We were given access to three locations across Firle and guests had access to some incredible rural locations, gorgeous sunsets and delightful walks across the Estate to reach the array of pubs, tea-rooms and farm shops that were on offer.  The glowing reviews suggest they loved it!

An amazing and unique experience. We stayed in Skoolie for two nights at the end of October and from the grown ups to the little ones we were all amazed by Skoolie’s charm and coolness. As a family we loved our time together playing American monopoly and reading books kindly provided whilst only getting distracted by the pheasants running around in the field. The location was great and was close for visits to Beachy head and Brighton. Thank you to Guy and Ruth who were helpful,good at communication and great to deal with. Would highly recommend a stay in Skoolie.
Paul Walker
Paul Walker
04/11/2021
My husband, daughter and I spent 2 nights in Skoolie during October, and it was perfect from start to finish. The bus has been designed in an incredibly clever way which makes it feel cozy and homely, while still creating enough space for each individual. Beds are gloriously comfy, shower and toilet make perfect use of the space available and are user friendly without fault. Kitchen is practical and once again showcases careful thinking and planning so that it’s small enough not to be in the way yet also accessible and useable. There was absolutely nothing lacking in this bus for our short break. The wood burner was super toasty and heats the whole bus in no time. We used the drop down balcony at the back of the bus constantly, lovely place for a brew and to read, again it’s a brilliant size to relax in comfort. Cannot fault the communication from the owners, professional yet also personal. Easy to contact, and gave clear and informative instructions. A really exceptional and special place for a break, we feel really privileged to have been able to stay here. Thank you.
Emma Paling
Emma Paling
23/10/2021
We had a great weekend in this super cool skoolie bus. Set in the South Down hills, there are plenty of walks to enjoy if you feel like it. Inside, the decor is spot on! Really well thought out with nice touches. The bed was so comfortable, the kitchen has everything you need and the little veranda is great to enjoy some evening drinks on. Loved it!!
Lorraine Salvi
Lorraine Salvi
16/10/2021
Amazing escape in this American school bus. Full of thoughtful touches and brilliantly laid out. This is a mini boutique bolt hole perfectly positioned for walks on the South Downs and close to fantastic pubs, Charleston and Lewes. The kids adored it and we loved that being off grid didn't feel like a compromise at all with solar lights & hot showers!
Shehani Fernando
Shehani Fernando
27/09/2021
Had a brilliant few nights here, the bus was super clean and tidy! Everything you’d need for a staycation, also good access to areas such as Brighton and the seven sisters. Would go again.
Natasha Pretlove
Natasha Pretlove
23/09/2021
We had a fabulous,fuss-free and comfy break. The location is great- rural but with the ability to shoot to Brighton for a city experience. The decor was excellent. Would recommend.
Laura Burgess
Laura Burgess
22/09/2021
Such a beautiful space… thoroughly recommend … and such a natural TV all around… so many pheasants …. Well needed time out ! ….
Sophie Green
Sophie Green
20/09/2021
We had a wonderful few days staying in Skoolie. The bus is beautiful and felt so relaxing to live in - and the location - and surrounding area of Firle are lovely to explore - with lots to do very locally. We would love to go back and hang out in Skoolie again!
Katherine Paine
Katherine Paine
17/09/2021
We stayed on the bus as part of one of our wedding gifts.. it was by far the best gift we received. We loved staying there. Not only is the bus amazingly well crafted, from the beautiful kitchen top to the fantastic bunk beds, the location is brilliant too. We are already planning our next visit. Thank you for such a lovely stay!
Jon Thwaites
Jon Thwaites
15/09/2021
Amazing place to stay and so many lovely details on the bus, beautifully kitted out and with stunning views of the downs. Gorgeous!
Andrea James
Andrea James
31/08/2021

Moving on to something new

 

So why have we left? Well, all good things must come to an end. Our agreement with Firle was created so that we could offer off-grid camping on unused farmland. But no corner of a farm has empty space for long. Sheep had to be moved to different fields, rams separated, crops cut, seeds sown and shooting traps set. As our booking calendar became increasingly busy, it became a complicated process trying to work out where and when we could move.  

 

We made the decision to try and find a new location. We wanted one that offered us the same level of access to the stunning South Downs, with some equally great eateries and activities on our doorstep, but that also felt off-grid. We also wanted to increase our outdoors offering to guests. At Firle we had to be mindful of crops and farm buildings . For our new location, we wanted space for kids to run around and adults to set up hammocks or sit around a firepit to toast marshmallows.  

Bringing an iconic vehicle to an iconic location

where to stay near beachy head

As soon as Visit Eastbourne showed us Black Robin Farm, we could see the potential. Our own field with views of the sea, less than a mile from the stunning white cliffs of Beachy Head and the South Downs Way, within walking distance of Eastbourne’s amenities.  It was perfect. 

 

The Visit Eastbourne team were just as excited about the idea of moving the Skoolie as us. For them, our tiny home offered tourists and residents an opportunity for high-end glamping at one of their most visited tourist destinations. It also fit their vision of an environmentally-conscious glamping solution, it’s solar panels and sheep’s wool insulation making it a year-round option for those who like to escape without abandoning all the comforts of home . Besides, they had fallen in love with the epoxy countertop and the big bug-eye mirrors by then!  

 

We are already live on the Visit Eastbourne site and will soon be coming out in their accommodation brochure for 2022.  

From one location to....almost nowhere

Skoolie tow
The Skoolie makes a graceful exit from the muddy field

The day came for the big move and we turned on the engine. As the revs turned over, we surveyed the first obstacle – getting out of the field. Firle had received an obscene amount of rain over the past few weeks and our spot, at the bottom corner of a field, had been getting boggier and boggier. Normally, wellies suffice to get you through a muddy field, but you can’t put those on a 14-ton vehicle.  

 

As soon as we tried to manoeuvre out of the field, we found our wheels spinning. Disaster. Or it could have been. Luckily for us, the farmer is lovely and sent one of his boys down with a tractor to tow us out the field. Problem averted! 

But first a little pit stop....

Applying Lanoguard rust treatment
Applying Lanoguard rust treatment

During the initial build, our friends at Lanoguard had sponsored the application of their chemical-free rust treatment, derived from lanolin, to the bottom of the bus. Knowing we were off to the salty sea air of Beachy Head, they offered to reapply, suggesting we park up at Newhaven Beach so they could film it for their social media.

 

A stop-over by the beach? Who could resist!

 

After cleaning the underbody of the bus at a local garage (it was pretty muddy!), we parked up at the beach in time for sunset. It was lovely down by the water, listening to waves lap beside us. It reminded me of the times we parked on the beach in Texas at Padre Island. Sigh.

To the distant cliffs!

View of skoolie and cliffs
The Skoolie with the cliffs at Birling Gap behind us

The drive to Eastbourne was the furthest we would had driven the bus ourselves since it arrived. Each bus is built to different specs – some are good for the mountains, others are better for the cities. Our Florida bus was one that stopped and started a lot – i.e. it didn’t get up much speed. There also aren’t many hills in that part of Florida. We could see the cliffs looming over Seven Sisters. How would it fare?

 

Thankfully, it was fine. It chugged slowly up the hills and descended gracefully! We made it to Eastbourne’s heritage coast, via the single file bridge at Cuckmere Valley, and one of the most beautiful views over the snaking Cuckmere river. We had no trouble with the field, not a bog in sight – I guess when you are a the top of a cliff then the water runs down!

Safely in our new home

View from skoolie beachy head
Sucking up the solar at Beachy Head

We are now happily parked up in our field at Black Robin Farm, the deck down for sunset drinks and morning coffees. It really is a beautiful spot and we feel very lucky to have access to such a stunning part of the South Downs. 

Tempted by your own Skoolie Stay? Get in touch and we can get you booked up!
Categories
America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

The end of the adventure – UK2USA becomes USA2UK

And so we came home. 12 months, 14,000 miles, 18 states and 1 pandemic later, our feet are back on British soil. The great adventure is over. So what happens next?

Well one thing we weren’t really expecting to do so quickly – sell our beloved bus.

Skoolie at sunset
The sun sets on our Skoolie adventure

Returning home

It was very strange to leave America. After such an epic year of travel it was always going to feel a bit weird, and we knew it would be hard to leave our bus behind, but the pandemic added an extra layer of apprehension. Would we make it back to Heathrow without catching Coronavirus? Would our flights be cancelled again? Would our insurance step up if we needed it or would I be refused on the basis of some tenuous link to Covid? We were so focused on monitoring everything and planning our movements, covering every eventuality and coming up with plan after plan to get us safely back to London, that we barely thought about what would happen when we got there.

Flying with masks
An empty plane and sad faces hidden by our Covid 19 masks

The journey ended up going exactly to plan. Renee and Brett from the Skoolie Homestead drove us to the airport in Savannah. It was the easiest long-haul trip I have ever made; the airports were empty and the queues non-existent. Of the 100 seats in our section of the plane, only six of them were filled and we were four of those.  We spread out and congratulated ourselves on our American exit.

But then we had to make our UK entrance. We felt totally unprepared. We had not even thought about life after July 10th, other than how lovely it was going to be to see family and friends, and it hit us hard. The kids were in their element, ‘there’s the shops!’, ‘there’s the school!’. Guy and I just stared at the busy roads and our end destination – suburbia. Everything we had wanted to escape was sucking us back in and none of it was any different. Why was our bus sitting in the wide open spaces of America while we were sitting in a car feigning excitement about seeing our house?

Quarantine and the reintroduction to reality

Brighton beach
We couldn’t move back into our home as it was rented out, so we began a summer of house / pet-sitting and heading to the beach

With the negative frame of mind, two-weeks of quarantine was both a blessing and a curse. It was frustrating to be stuck inside and we found it very hard to adapt to the stillness of living in a house, sleeping in a bedroom with no whirring fans and all being in different rooms doing different things. I think the forced separation from everyone helped us acclimatise though. Even the boys felt restless and we were all grumpy and struggling to chat to people.

When we were finally released to the people of Brighton it felt very strange to not hug them. We had a constant stream of visitors coming to see us from the end of the garden path but after a year of not seeing someone, you want to get in there and get physical!

Bike on the south downs
Kit turned 10 and spent the week celebrating with his family, friends and a brand new bike. He is very happy to be home.

It’s just over a month since we returned now and the kids seem back to normal. Guy and I still have the travel blues but we are getting there. When Google or FB remind me of this time last year, it already seems a bit like a dream. I sometimes can’t believe we actually did it – bucked the trend of settling down in our forties and instead took our kids to travel the world.

Travelling in your forties

Family with skoolie
Our last day in America finally arrived – the bus would have to stay and we would have to go

Travelling is a rite of passage in your twenties or early thirties when you have only shallow roots that attach you to your world – no kids, no property, no real commitments. You just up and leave with your back pack and return refreshed and full of new ideas about the next chapter of your life. When you hit your forties though you find those tubers have burrowed deeper into a complicated web of work, children and financial responsibilities. The drive to travel is still there but taking a sabbatical from life feels like an impossible dream.

Fishing from the roof deck – swapping our home life for bus life made total sense.

But it’s not impossible. Our happy and healthy return proves that it can be done and I’m so proud of us all for making the dream become a reality.  I’m also thrilled to see the positive effect our trip had on friends and family – it felt that people suddenly realised that there was more to be done in their time on the planet and longer trips away were booked, plans were made to buy campervans and people wanted to come out and join us as part of the adventure.

But though I would wholeheartedly recommend a sabbatical, its not a decision to be taken lightly.

Taking a gamble

Pub garden
Finally found a British pub that would allow us in to celebrate the sale of the bus

We took an enormous leap of faith to make our trip happen. It is hard to hand over a ton of money to a stranger to work on a bus that you have not even seen, then manage that build through video calls on WhatsApp. We had six months tinged with anxiety and fear, as well as a lot of DIY and bank transfers as we booked flights, formally removed the kids from school, handed in our notice and packed up our house.  It felt like we were taking a precarious gamble with our family.

Skoolie in the desert
A very different lifestyle but a very worthwhile year out

When we arrived in the U.S the challenges continued. 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. In America, once the bus is registered as a personal vehicle, you can drive it with your standard license and so we were able to just pick it up and go. We had a brief practice in a car park and watched a few YouTube videos (I kid you not!) about ‘squaring corners’ in a bus, and headed out into urban Salt Lake City. It was a huge test of nerves but this trip was always designed to push us out of our comfort zone.

Getting used to the road wasn’t the only thing we had to accomplish. Home was carpets, bath-tubs, walk-in showers, wardrobes of clothes, large kitchens with all the appliances, sofas, Netflix, a flushing loo, doors to different rooms, nearby shops… we had none of these things. Privacy had to go, cleanliness standards had to drop considerably and we had to rethink how we shopped, laundered our clothes and used water. We were living tiny and largely off-grid for a whole year and so were reliant on solar panels generating the bulk of our energy and a compost loo.

An education

homeschooling on the bus
Science, maths, literacy, wizarding – there was not much space for school on the school bus

Home-schooling was one of the biggest challenges. It was a great unknown and was harder than I thought it would be. Ironic really that everybody has now been doing it for a huge chunk of the year and knows what I am talking about!

Many home-schoolers ‘de-school’ their kids and just learn on the road, but this option wasn’t open to us as both boys wanted to go back to school. We came up with a plan to follow the curriculum in literacy and maths to keep them at the same level as their peers, but let the trip provide the rest of their education. I’m so proud of both boys as it was tough to transition to learning in the bus, lying on the bed to do literacy (there was no other space) and staying awake whilst discussing transitive verbs.  I wanted to go to sleep and I was the teacher!

Mardi Gras
The school of life – celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Learning really came into its own when we let the trip itself do the teaching. When people started to stand up for #BlackLivesMatter, we were in the deep South and could see first-hand the problems America has with recognising the past; we learnt about food chains and eco-systems by climbing onto the roof deck and watching wolves, reintroduced into Yellowstone to balance the ecosystem,  hunt bison on the plains below us; rather than reading about temperate rainforest we slept in the middle of the Douglas Firs and Red Cedars, waking up to the earthy smells and eerie green light through the canopy; we learnt first-hand what to do if a grizzly bear comes close and what a tarantula looks like close-up .

Perhaps the biggest lessons came from the bus. We saw how hard it was to stick to a budget and be mindful of living tiny, only keeping things we really wanted; we read more books; we tried different foods; we met all sorts of people and we learnt how to get along with each other in a small space.

So why did we sell the bus?

Hugging a skoolie
It was so hard to leave – we all had a good cry

When people ask us what the best part of our trip was, we tell them it was the bus. Converted skoolies may be all over Instagram but they are few and far between on the actual American roads. A tiny drop in the RV ocean. We felt like celebrities driving around in such a cool vehicle and people would constantly come up to talk to us. She was an absolute beauty inside and out, performing brilliantly over all terrain. It was horrendously sad to say goodbye when we flew home but we held onto a dream that we either come back to finish our trip on the east coast or somehow bring her home to the UK in the future.

Tree frog on a lamp
We left this little fella to look after the bus. he seemed quite at home jumping between the plant and the light fitting.

We quite quickly realised, once we sat down to do the calculations, that bringing our bus back to the UK made no financial sense. Retired school buses in America are plentiful, so they are inexpensive. The cost is in the professional conversion because of all the gear needed to travel off grid (compost toilet, massive propane tank etc). If we brought our bus back to the UK we’d have to pay shipping fees and then would likely need to change the interior to make it more suitable for Airbnb customers – nobody wants to use a compost toilet and empty out buckets of their own wee – and to fit British standards. None of these problems were insurmountable, they just would add cost and all our savings had already been ploughed into the bus. When we looked at the market, we realised we could sell the bus and recoup those savings and give ourselves the capital to invest in another project. Maybe even another bus. Sense soon over-rode sentiment and it went online – the UK2USA Skoolie was up for sale.

We were thrilled when we found a buyer – a lovely family who are super excited about their new adventure. It’s hard to imagine our tiny world belonging to someone else, but I’m happy for them and glad the UK2USAskoolie lives to go on another American road trip. That said, it felt very, very strange to see the video of it driving away from the Skoolie Homestead earlier today.

A ‘cost neutral’ year

Tiny living - meals in a skoolie
There’s no eating out every night when you are on a budget. Now that we are home, none of us can face any more packet noodles or wraps.

Aside from ‘making it happen’, the other big challenge I set myself was keeping the trip ‘cost neutral’. We didn’t have a bottomless bank account; we needed to fund the trip without losing all our worldly possessions. We needed to exist for a year on the return we would make on the rental of our UK home, our two flats and our campervan. This was not a holiday, it was living differently and it would only work if we made some adjustments.

And did we achieve our target? It was pretty darn close. In the end the balance sheets show us slightly in the red but I am not going to beat myself up about it– no-one in the world could have predicted the effects of a global pandemic on their budget. We managed to keep to our monthly budget and sold the bus for a good price, but the pound is worth a lot less now than it was then. We also had to buy new last-minute flights when our New York – London flights were cancelled and, because we had been stuck in quarantine in Georgia for 2 months, had to get internal flights for the section that we had hoped to drive.  Even my sensible contingency could not cover all of those eventualities. I console myself by thinking that we still spent less in a whole year than many of my friends have spent on a 2-week all-inclusive holiday in Europe or even a week away in Centerparcs!

The next chapter

Fishing Brighton beach
Now we just need to wait for the sun to come up on a new day – a new adventure

And so with no bus to return to, what comes next? Well, once we have weathered the storm of travel blues, we will set about the plans that we started to hatch whilst camping out in the many incredible farms, distilleries and vineyards across America. We will inject a bit of the Skoolie magic into our UK world, work on what we learned in our year away and embark on something new and exciting. We may not be on a physical road anymore but we are certainly on a metaphorical one, and travel has left us refreshed and ready to put our foot down on the pedal. Watch this space!

Categories
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!

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

The impact of Covid-19 on Skoolie life

We thought we had Covid-19 isolation nailed. Staying in, staying away from friends, not working, living 24/7 with the same faces, struggling with less supplies, homeschooling… we’ve been doing that for months. Turns out Corona Virus had a very different game plan when it came to our trip though. You may have drawn the ‘enforced solitude’ card from the pack, but the evil virus didn’t want to give us that same card. Instead, it wanted it back.

The good life

For the last 10 months we have been learning to live the quiet life. We chose to leave the UK to ‘live differently’ for a year, down-sizing and simplifying our lives so that we could live in a Skoolie and travel. The four of us found our groove, home-schooling from workbooks in the morning and exploring in the afternoon. Every few days we’d move a little further down the road to a new camp spot and spend our time taking hikes, riding bikes, playing on beaches and lying in hammocks.

Empty beaches and beautiful sunsets on the Oregon coast
The trappings of our old life had drifted far enough away for the kids to spend hours with a book or kicking a ball, instead of asking about television or tablets.

Then Covid-19 happened. The UK and (parts of) the US went into lock-down. Our days of travel seemed over. So too did our days of solitude.  

A virtual return

The global pandemic turned our adventure into the same one everybody else was having – that of staying still, living within the confines of your reduced world and spending all your time with your family. But where we had learnt to use travel as the stimulus to keep things fresh, our family and friends started to wholly rely on the web. 

Virtual choir on Zoom
We have not had much access to WiFi whilst travelling – in the early part of our trip I didn’t even have phone access and my phone lived at the bottom of a box somewhere. By chance, our lockdown spot does have internet access though, so joining my old choir, now online, was do-able.

When you exist in a virtual world, it makes no difference if you are in a house in suburbia or a field in Georgia. Houseparty notifications started popping up for the kids and invites for virtual nights out on Zoom filled our inboxes. Afternoons became less about the space we were in and more about drinking wine with friends in the UK who had just put their kids to bed. We were in a social whirl.

The novelty started to wear off after the umpteenth technical issue: delayed voices, frozen screens, failure to connect. Our livers were struggling with early afternoon drinking; 8pm in the UK is only 3pm in the US and when you can’t really follow the conversation clearly or respond, the wine goes down fast. Our re-connection with friends had always been planned over a cold beer in a pub garden, the way we had said goodbye to most of them last July. The online drunken confusion was premature and unfulfilling.

Nostalgia quickly set in. Why had we stopped playing cards in the evening and started watching Netflix again? Why weren’t we sitting around bonfires learning Avril Lavigne lyrics (Kit is a fan!) and why did I keep looking at news headlines on my phone? Why did I care about Ozark? Where were all the lovely views and quiet spaces? I could feel the tension of home creeping into my shoulders.

Homeschooling headache

The internet has opened up a whole world of free homeschooling opportunities. Too much choice!

Our new ‘lockdown life’ was also causing ripples in homeschooling. We were used to muddling through, working from curriculum guidelines and trying to put together our own lessons. We would spend hours in preparation, copying out questions for the kids to fill in, using super slow data connection to find out how current methods of maths and literacy are taught in schools.

Lockdown flipped a switch. Celebrities and education sites started offering teaching for free, covering everything the kids needed. We were pretty excited because for once we had WiFi and could actually access it. How could we fail with teaching now? Life was going to get easier.

We were wrong.

In the first week we lost our way, sifting through endless, uncoordinated material as we panic-viewed everything. We found ourselves back in our WhatsApp parent’s groups, sharing homeschooling memes and actually achieving nothing as far as our children’s education was concerned. 

Just as we had become frustrated with socialising online, we all started to get cross with our school sessions. How could it be that instead of spotting tarantulas and alligators on long hikes, we were like the rest of the UK population: playing ‘spot the difference’ on Joe Wicks‘ shelf?

We had the travel blues. We were ‘virtually’ home and we didn’t want to be there. We needed to claim our trip back.

A location reality check

Of course reminding ourselves we were in America wasn’t hard. We just had to look around us instead of looking at our computer screens. But while the bugs and the sunshine, the people and the tasteless cheese were familiar reminders of our location, there were some pretty scary reminders too.

Covid 19 hits America

Like the rest of the world in February, we had an eye on Corona Virus but were hoping it could be contained. The U.S press downplayed the spread, focusing on Trump’s decision to stop all flights from China and Europe, saving Americans from the fate of the ‘Chinese virus’ that was starting to attack Europe. 

New York and Washington were hot-spots but the media portrayed these as an anomaly. Trump passed over the responsibility for Covid-19 management within each State, straight to the State Governors. We are just an hour or so from the Florida border and it was with some concern that we watched as Florida’s Governor decided not to go for a lock-down and instead welcomed 72 flights worth of New Yorkers in one day. 72 flights of people from a place where thousands were infected. 

Stories of social unrest began to filter through. While the UK were signing up to volunteer with the NHS, Americans were buying more ammo. Gun sales went up by 70%. There’s a comforting thought. 

The US is a medical mess

We are in the middle of nowhere, which is great unless we need medical care. Remote Georgia hospitals are often just staffed by one doctor who does everything.

I watch the UK clapping for the NHS, read the reports of companies working to provide ventilators for pop-up hospitals and feel vulnerable. It’s a different story in the US. Trump’s administration diverted funding put aside for pandemics – cutting efforts to prevent global diseases by 80%. National health spending was cut by $15-billion, making it impossible for Obama Care to function. Hospitals are under-equipped and there is no widely available cheap healthcare option available. People without insurance can’t afford to get a Covid-19 test and they certainly can’t afford treatment. As one friend put it, they would be ‘bottom of the heap’ if they did need to go to hospital and doctors had to choose who would get the limited ventilators. 

BAndaged knee
When Soren cut his knee open it cost us about $1000 to get 7 stitiches. That was the bottom price – not the one they would have given if we had company insurance, which was 70% more.

If your Corona Virus infection means a hospital trip and it goes smoothly, and you have employer insurance, you are looking at about a $9,763 hospital bill. Someone whose treatment has complications may see bills about double that: $20,292. This is based on the Kaiser Family Foundation study on people with pneumonia though and they say, If you required full on Covid ER care with ventilators etc, it could be much, much more. Maybe above $75k.

But it’s covered by insurance?!

Well some of it. Most insurance requires you to make some payment out of your own pocket. In the study I read, that was approximately $1300. Friends have told me that is short. Most people are on high deductible plans, and pay $7500 – $15,000 before insurance STARTS to pay. And they only pay 80% of the costs incurred after that amount.

And then there are those that have no employer cover. You can buy insurance through the Affordable Care Act but cheaper plans only cover 60% of your bills. Many millions of Americans can’t afford it anyway and so have gone without. If you can’t pay you accrue a healthcare debt and can’t get credit to buy a home etc. Very different to the NHS.

Thank goodness we were covered by travel insurance. Or were we? 

The wriggly worm of insurance

We took out a policy with World Nomads, an expensive option but one that was recommended by Lonely Planet and thousands of other travelling families. I did lots of research on their coverage and their customers and, in general, gave good feedback. Certainly, with Soren’s knee they were easy to deal with (although we haven’t submitted the claim yet). 

Easter treats
There was no Easter chocolate to be found in our isolated spot in Georgia- I had to make the Easter treats, can you tell?

World Nomads were clear on their site in January and February – if you had booked to travel before the virus was known, you were covered. But then, in March, they updated their FAQs. The status of the virus had changed to a pandemic and this invoked one of their general exclusions: “we will not cover: epidemics that have been placed under the direction of public authorities”

We were no longer covered by insurance for any flight cancellations and we were no longer covered if we got sick in the U.S. It’s ok, the FAQs said, you are covered for everything else. Unless of course you are travelling to a country with an ‘all but essential travel’ ban.

So that’s everywhere then? And so we are not covered? What is the point of insurance if it’s not there to support you when you are trapped overseas? It took a further three weeks for them to come back and tell us that we are allowed to travel – as long as we don’t need help with anything Corona- related, all is good.

But could we stay virus free? We had to ask the question: was it safe to stay? Should we return home? The FCO certainly seemed to think we should get out of here.

Catch (Covid) 22: returning home

The big problem was that we couldn’t just up and leave. We owned a Skoolie in America – where would it go? It would also be an insanely expensive and risky option. We already stood to lose a lot of money on our Norwegian flights and now we would have to purchase new, expensive ones, in order to follow their advice.

Skoolie remote
What in the heck could we do with this fella?

Assuming we made the decision to do it, we would also have to travel via cities and airports to get there, potentially infecting ourselves. If we made it, we would have nowhere to isolate as our house is being rented out. If we picked Covid-19 up and weren’t allowed to board, we would lose those flights too and then couldn’t claim for any healthcare treatment we might need.

In lieu of advice from our insurers, we contacted the FCO. They told us that the guidelines are for people on holidays, not necessarily for people in situations like ours. We were best off following advice from US authorities if we felt that was a safer option. So the decision baton was passed back to us.

Finding a silver lining

Mercifully, we had somewhere wonderful to stay.

Skoolie Homestead Community
Our American family at the Skoolie Homestead Community

Way back in the planning stages, Guy had flagged a post on Facebook’s Skoolie Nation group by Skoolie Homestead. They offered a place where people could come to work on their builds in Jesup, Georgia for $250 a month / $60 a week.

We arrived to a warm welcome at the Homestead on a Friday. It was hot, humid and full of gnats and mozzies, but we could see we’d found something good. There were 3 other completed Skoolies, including the owner’s, and one that was being built. Unlike every place we have been before, there was not a Snowbird in sight. These were people like us who had chosen to live in a bus. There were other kids to play with and space to run around,  people played music and chatted, offering Skoolie advice and stories. We had found the community we had been looking for for months. 

Life at the Homestead

We have all the things we recognised were beneficial on that first arrival day – bathroom, shower, power, space, grey-water dump, other kids, laundry, people to chat to – but we also have a strong community to help us get through this. A generous and helpful community as it turns out. 

Just after we arrived, the property on the land became empty and the owners of the Homestead decided to use it as a communal space. They installed WiFi and put up hammocks on the deck outside. A huge television was put in for movie nights and we started doing online yoga sessions (as well as Joe Wicks!) every morning. Pot luck suppers were arranged and a ‘horseshoes’ game and Corn Hole was set up in front of the porch. A volleyball net was purchased and afternoon matches were put in place. A swimming pool frame was installed and, before we knew it, we had somewhere to cool down on those hot, humid days. 

So what next?

Shopping is carefully planned – only two or three people from the community go out

Like the rest of the world we are waiting. We don’t have Covid-19 yet and we haven’t had it (I don’t think), so the safest thing to do is avoid getting it.  Wayne County, Georgia, has had a ‘shelter in place’ warning in place, but now it has been removed we are free to go.

Stopping has also given us the impetus to start thinking of what we will do with our bus and what we might want to do when we return to the UK. We have made good contacts at the Homestead and if we do decide to pursue a world which includes Skoolies, we could not have found a better resource than the friends we have made here.  

We have also come up with a plan for the Skoolie Homestead Community to look after our bus when we return to the UK. They will offer it as a place to stay for people who are building their own Skoolies – a ‘try before you buy’.

The end of the UK2USASkoolie travel adventure?

Walking
We are so grateful to have made so many friends and have so much to do – this is Soren heading out with his his ‘couch to 5k’ team.

Before we stopped in Georgia, our plan had been to travel to Savannah so that we could wander through the streets made so tempting by the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” (what a fab book!) and Charleston, where the architecture and history would show us yet another facet of American life.

We had plans to visit Atlanta to stay with friends we made in Belize and then visited in Rio, finding time to visit the Aquarium – something that has been on the boy’s “must do” lists since meeting David in Glacier National Park “It has 4 whale sharks!!”. We had a date in Chatanooga with Guy’s best mate Steve, where we had planned to hike and chat and pretend we were on the run from crazed hillbillies a la Deliverance. All those things are off the table. Steve’s return home date has been and gone.

Although the travel dream is compromised, we still have two months left and that is more than most people get for their whole holiday. We have decided to leave soon to visit the Smoky Mountains and the Appalachians. State Parks are opening again in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee, and as long as we have a place to stay we can socially distance in our moving home. Perks of bus life.

We want to finish this trip the way we started – on the road and without permanent access to the internet. Living in our Skoolie in America, not stationary in Georgia or virtually in the UK.

For now though, we will accept that stopping still for two months has just been part of our travel adventure – and I’m sure it will even become a highlight. Not only are we having some of our favourite travel times, we are witnessing a world brought together by a pandemic and evolving to offer a new set of rules. We are at the birth of a people discovering that everything can function remotely and that the chains that tie us to a life we don’t want, might be loosened after all. We are watching with joy as friends and family find out something we discovered ten months ago – that living a less socially-demanding life and hanging out with your family can be beautifully uncomplicated and quite special.

Now we are just waiting to see who will be the next to take the leap and spend a year living the Skoolie life.

Categories
America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Finding Fun in Florida

What do you think of when I write the words Florida? Sandy beaches, glorious sunshine,  Disney? It’s the perfect holiday destination…. well until you realise that every other RV traveller and European winter escapee has that same image of themselves sipping cocktails at the sunset beach bar, watching rockets launch from Cape Canaveral, taking day trips into the mangroves to spot alligators and swimming with manatees in the fresh water springs.

Florida was full. Every campsite we tried was rammed, every activity was booked up and we spent every evening poring over road maps and trip planner books to try and find the best solution. How on earth would we ‘do Florida’? How on earth was everyone else managing to ‘do Florida’?!

Playing the Florida game

Most of the RV travellers we meet are Americans. They travel the length of the country depending on the weather. As we have mentioned before, the bulk of them are snowbirds and, it seems, one of their traits is forward planning.

Boys on beach sunset Florida
The boys love nothing more than beach time – but the Florida keys were booked up until November 2020! Luckily we did manage to find a few places, like this gem – Topsail Preserve State Park.

They play the system – State Parks offer the best locations and biggest sites, but are also substantially cheaper than private parks (sometimes $70 a night cheaper!). They also only have nominal cancellation fees. It’s a no-brainer. As soon as the reservations open in November our white-haired friends batch book all the coastal spots. Closer to the time they (sometimes) cancel the days they don’t need.

Fighting back to snag the Florida RV cancellations

Had we not committed to dropping our lovely visitor Lou-Lou off at Orlando Airport, as well as visiting Universal Studios (the boys’ Christmas present), we probably would have just given up on Florida and headed straight into Georgia.

We had a commitment though (and interactive wands) so we decided that we just had to get creative. It was then that a handy loophole came our way.

Crab in the sand
You want to go to Florida? I have a solution!
We found this little fella (and hundreds of his mates) when we went out with a torch at night on Flagler Beach.

Wandering Labs lets you put in the earliest and latest dates for a campsite and it will constantly scan for availability. It’s a game of ‘fastest finger first’ – if something gets cancelled a mail goes out to everyone looking to book.

Of course most of the dates are just singular overnights and so you find yourself panic-discussing, whilst trying to hold the space before paying, whether it makes sense to drive four hours south for a one-night space that has opened up at John Pennekamp Coral Reef or Bahia Honda in the Keys.  Will something else come up? How badly do we really want to go? Arrggghhhhh!

Getting sensible and rethinking what makes a good Skoolie trip

Driving a Skoolie across the Florida State line
Whenever we cross a state line we do a countdown through the bus intercom, which is still wired up throughout the whole bus. One speaker is right next to Kit’s head in his bunk….one day I am going to give him the loudest wake up call!

Sitting in front of a mobile stressing about campsites and long drives doth not make a fun holiday. We had a chat about Florida and tried to work out what we actually wanted to see, what we thought we should be seeing and what we were actually likely to see if we did make the trip.

Florida – there’s more to life

Florida has amazing beaches – you don’t need to go to the Florida Keys, in fact the Gulf Coast has much more beautiful, white-sand beaches
  • Beaches – we still had plenty of coast to travel, Southern Florida was not our only option.
  • Snorkelling – march is still too cold to spend long in the water
  • Alligators – pah, we’d seen them in Texas. How much better would they be in the Everglades
  • Manatees – they are rare, what’s the chances we’d spot one anyway
  • Rockets – well if we are lucky we’ll spot one as we drive past Cape Canaveral.
Skoolie trips should all be about down-time – not ‘campsite monitoring on your phone’-time!

Playing the system wasn’t for us. My ‘fastest finger’ deleted all the alerts for the south and we decided to just focus on a couple of good beach sites on the Gulf Coast and take the rest of the trip inland.

The best laid plans

It took a while but Wandering Labs paid off and we eventually secured four nights at Fort Pickens National Seashore on the Florida panhandle – beachside spots on the Gulf of Mexico.

It didn’t quite go to plan. Because we were surfing the cancellations, each night we had to move to a different site. Then, the weather turned. There we were, idyllic white-sand beach and the rain meant that we spent hours and hours hunkered down in our Skoolie (which by now smelt of wet cagouls). We might as well have been in a Walmart car park!!

If in doubt, go to a goat farm

Boy holding baby goat in Florida
The boys fell in love with the goats – this is Butterscotch

We had a lot of miles to cover to get to Orlando and, based on drives of about 3 hours a day, we worked out that we needed to break our road trip near Talahassee. It was a weekend and even the obscure campsites were booked so we went on Hipcamp to find an alternative.

It was very alternative.

I broke the news to Louise, “so when you come out for holidays we have a few days in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, some beautiful beach time, some volunteering on a goat farm time and then on to Orlando!”

A goat farm???

Baby goats chewing on shoes
They loved to chew on your laces!

We travelled towards Talhassee with some trepidation – this was not like our usual camp spots. Like a Boondockers Welcome hosted spot, this would be off-grid living. That’s not a problem for us but Lou was not so enamoured with the idea of it. The road was terrible and we bumped and heaved along looking for the gate. What were we doing?

Volunteering on the goat farm
Our volunteer duties included moving the compost heap and spreading it on the garden. It was the first bit of work we had done in seven months (and the first bit of physical effort!!!)

What a fab decision! It was a breathe of fresh air (albeit with a goaty tang!) to camp out in the goat paddock of Melissa’s laid-back, community-focused farm. Volunteers chatted around the fire, baked food for each other, sold hand-made jam and worked for their stay building barns, collecting eggs from the chickens or doing farm maintenance.

Feeding a baby goat
Soren took the job of feeding Corey very seriously. Her mum, Blaze, was also here but she’d forgotten that part of the job description was feeding your baby. Poor old Corey had to be bottle-fed from birth

The five of us moved  a big compost pile . Well, most of us did – the boys were tasked with cuddling the baby goats and giving them milk. They LOVED it!

Manateeeeeeees

I booked a spot at Manatee Springs campground not expecting to see actual manatees. It wasn’t listed on Florida Tourism’s guide to where to find them, but it was exactly half way on the route to Orlando.

Manatee springs and a mum and baby manatee
The water at Manatee Springs was so clear we could easily make out the mum and her baby

We were lucky. Manatees swim in the springs in cooler temperatures and this tucked away spot had the crystal clear water they love. We had barely even walked to the waters edge when someone said there was a  “momma and her baby” in there.  They munched on grass and occasionally came up for air with a breathy snort.

Manatees munching on the foliage
Munch, munch, munch

The next day we took out kayaks and bobbed along as five of the enormous creatures glided around us. The water was so clear we could make out the most incredible detail. We have since seen other manatees (turns out Florida is swarming with them at this time of year) and only really saw the occassional ripple and a snout.

The magical world of Kit, Soren and Harry Potter

The wizarding world of Harry Potter - two hufflepuff wizards
The boys went on Pottermore and found they were both Hufflepuffs. They wanted to buy robes but they cost $120 each. Mummy squashed that plan straight away, bought them a lollipop for $5.99 and showed them the robes on eBay…. $20, thank you very much!


We ummed and ahhed about going to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter for a long time. We usually avoid busy, touristy, over-priced attractions as we can’t really afford it and generally begrudge parting with so much cash for just one activity.

We had managed to sew the seed in them that the Disney parks were all about Disney princesses and they actively did NOT want to go. There was nothing we could do about Universal Studio’s offering though – there was no way that they would shrug off a chance to go to Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. And really, what kind of parents would be if we begrudged our two children, who have very few treats these days ..seriously, driving in an actual car in New Orleans was the most exciting thing they had done for months according to them, it felt like a superfast rollercoaster, the chance to dip into the world of their favourite book / movie and experience Florida’s famous theme parks.

Butterbeer at Harry Potter World
Butterbeer….. mmmmmmmmmm tastes like butterscotch.
I can also tell you the Dragon’s Breath beer and Hogsmeade Ale were very enjoyable. The latter might have been my most enjoyed beer in America. I really was ready for it though!

Eventually we decided to use all the Christmas present money and buy tickets. It gave me anxiety thinking about the money  – for four of us to go it cost 7 dollars more than auntie Louise’s flights to America. What if we hated it? What if it was too busy? Should we just have kept the money and used it to pay for more regular treats? What if we had used it to cover those RV parks in the keys that could have given us the classic Florida Keys experience?

Hogwarts Express
Finally – we are off to Hogwarts!

Needless to say we went. Highlights for me (apart from the beer), was Auntie Lou-lou’s face when we did the ‘kid swap’ option (one parent stays with the kids while the other rides) and she had to go on the Forbidden Journey ride on her own. We thought we were just touring the castle but it turns out the tour IS the queue and after over an hour walking at snail’s pace around the castle it seemed to make sense for us to go on the ride. She got whisked away before she really knew what she was doing.

The second best bit (and please note the sarcasm) was when Kit was too scared to go on the Forbidden Journey but decided 5 minutes after we exited that he wanted to do it. Back for another 90 minute queue then!

universal studios from skoolie
This was the closest Guy got to Universal Studios. He lucked out and went to the movies instead!

I won’t tell you more about it as both kids are writing their own blogs about the day as part of their literacy homework. If they ever finish them I shall post them up for you to enjoy.

Rockets!


The Kennedy Space Center costs too much money. They try to style it out as another activity you can do in your week of paying for Disney and Universal, so in comparison to them it seems economical. I don’t want to pay the  best part of $200 to visit the museum though and then pay more to watch a rocket to take off. The main reason we wanted to go was to watch a rocket launch and surely the sky does not belong to NASA – as long as we were camping close we should just be able to look up. We got the paper and checked the rocket launch schedule at Kennedy Space Center to look at the plans for launches.

SpaceX Dragon 1 makes its last ride

Launch date identified, we set about the campsite. Easier said than done. Jetty Park and Manatee Hammock campgrounds are the places that every blog or forum tells you to go if you want to watch blast off. Obviously though, they were all completely. Darn snowbirds already have the rocket schedule nailed. 

You can’t reserve an un-reserveable space though – Florida Today mentioned some rocket watching spots off the highway. No overnights but we could just drive off after to a Flying J truck stop to overnight.

SpaceX Dragon 1 launch
Watching the rocket launch from our roofdeck

Anticipating it to be busy, we identified a pullout that was on the water’s edge and got there early. It was perfect. We looked directly across the bay to NASA and the launch pad. It even had dolphins to watch while we waited! We had drinks with our Canadian neighbours and then, at 11.45 got up of the roof deck for one of the most unbelievable spectacles of our trip.

We thought watching wolves in Yosemite was going to be our roof-decks magic moment but this gave it run for its money. There was a streak of bright light and a roar as the rocket went up and then an amazing ‘plasma- ball’ effect in the sky when the rocket detached itself from the base unit. A fireball dropped back down to Earth with a crack as it broke the sound barrier, then in just eight minutes the whole thing was done and we could see no more.

Photo taken from https://www.space.com/spacex-rocket-launch-nebula-images-by-photographers.html
This was taken by photographers for Space.com – it was the nebula effect “produced following stage separation, when the two stages are each doing their own thing: the second stage is firing up and propelling the payload into orbit while the first stage is firing its engines to head back to Earth.”

We researched what the unmanned SpaceX rocket was doing and were fascinated to learn about the equipment for 25 different experiments that was on board. it was taking to the International Space Station. It had everything from stem cells for monitoring under microgravity to better understand how the cells transition into heart cells, in a bid to cure heart disease, to Adidas trainers that were being tested to improve performance.

Discovering the mangroves

Cypress Elbows
Those knobbly bits you can see are called Cypress Elbows – they are parts of the tree roots. It makes the water ways look like they are alive.

While we were waiting for the rocket launch, we decided to travel a little bit further south. The weather was good and we didn’t want to go far so we just picked a couple of State Parks that had free spaces and decided to just see what they offered.

We arrived at Jonathan Dickenson State Park expecting little more than a few sweaty days amongst inland waterways. We ended up with a nature-packed treat and properly ticked of the last of the Florida environments… the alligator-infested swamps!

Alligator on the banks of the river
Five minutes earlier Guy said “I really want to see a big alligator and this feels like the kind of place we might find one”. Correct my friend – if you care to just look to the left. EEEEK!

There is nothing like gliding along in an inflatable kayak and spotting the statue-like shape of a 6ft reptile on the bank. “Get the camera quick!”. Then watching as it slithers and slips down the muddy bank and splooshes into the water just metres from your vessel. “Take the camera and pass me the paddle quick!”. Then, when it turns and glides towards you and your child, only his eyes visible above the water-line. “Back paddle. NOW”!

kayaking on the river
Back paddle!!!

We also stopped at Long Point Park (where we had our other experience with manatees). It was on a spit and had the sea on one side and several waterways and islands everywhere else. Guy and Kit had a solo paddle with a dolphin, much to Soren’s annoyance, but we also saw osprey’s, pelicans, egrets, ibis, storks and even flamingo.   

Finally heading north

Daytona Bike Week at Flagler Beach
Daytona Bike Week – every where you looked was bikes, bikes and more bikes


We lucked out again as we headed north. A cancellation popped up just when we needed it at Gamble Rogers State Park. It coincided with Daytona Bike Week, so apart from the dull roar of bikes that accompanied our stay, and the extended time it took to cross the road from the campsite (it was on a scenic bike route), we had a lovely few days on Flagler Beach.

Measuring sharks
This one is just a tiddler (despite needing a back brace to bring it in!)

Florida is also famous for big-game sport fishing and we watched several fishermen who were catching and tagging sharks. This black-tip looked huge to us at 5ft, the guy hauled it in wearing a special brace, but they seemed unimpressed.

boy standing on river structure
Little did we know that isolation was going to be the name of the game for the rest of our trip.

And so on to Georgia, where were would face the most radical change to our trip. Actually forget that – we would face the most radical change to our entire understanding of travel, health, economies, budgets and even the world.

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Taking Skoolie-life for granted in Texas

It’s easy to take things for granted when you travel for a long time. Every day you wake up to a beautiful view, every drive takes you to somewhere new to explore and, when you live in a Skoolie, every destination has someone who tells you that your bus is cool. Yeah, yeah, we know…

It all becomes normal very quickly. But has it become too normal? Are we taking what we are doing for granted?

Skoolie on the beach texas
Texas is one of the few places in America where driving a road vehicle on a beach is perfectly ok.

Texas was a chance to test this idea. It is the largest of the States and sits like an enormous behemoth at the bottom of America, a sprawling mass of landscapes, cultures and something that John Steinbeck refers to as ‘uniqueness”. In Travels with Charley he says, “Texas is a state mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.”
It all sounded very exciting!

A grubby introduction to Texan life

We knew it would take us an age to cross Texas in a Skoolie but over the course of the journey we’d leave the desert behind and find the Gulf Coast and the Deep South as well as music, art, fresh produce and delicious Tex-Mex food.

We crossed the border expecting great things. Our introduction, however, could not have been less impressive. It was instead a grit-covered misery.

Photo by Jeff Wilson from Texas monthly.com
Apparently the route we were driving is a place where oil prices and road deaths are at an all time high

Mile after mile of long, straight roads filled with 18-wheelers – oil trucks – thundering along spitting up sandy sludge. It coated the bus and made it impossible to see the windscreen. Not that there was much to see – alongside the oil plants that lined the road sat soul-less prefabricated box-homes for workers. Occasionally, we’d pass a small town and hopes would rise for an ice-cream pitstop but they all seemed to cater to a particular lonely and thirsty target audience… and suffice to say that two bored bus-bound kids was not it.

Discovering Texas in a Skoolie – a little history lesson on the lone star state.

The Lone Star Flag of Texas
The lone star flag of texas

The oil fields may have been ugly but they go a long way to explaining why Texas is different to it’s neighbours. Whilst the surrounding plantation- reliant southern states slumped when slavery was abolished and the civil war ended, Texans found a route out – building an industry around oil. They produce more per year than Saudi Arabia. They invested in economy, universities and technology and now have several companies in the Fortune 500 and lead the way across a number of industries.

Rio Grande Texas
Across the Rio Grande to Mexico.
Texas has a huge variety of landscapes, cultures and people, which reflect the several nations that have at one point controlled it as well as its diverse geography.

The luck of geology isn’t the only thing in their favour. Texas’ ‘lone star’ on their flag is supposed to be a reminder of their battle for independence from Mexico. It is also a lone star in contrast to the fifty on the US flag. They are not scared to go it alone and they might… they are the only state that joined the union under a treaty which allows them to secede at will. Steinbeck tells us they threaten to exercise this right whenever things don’t quite go their way. Perhaps we can expect…and I hesitate to use the term… “Texit”…..sometime soon?!

A new day a new Texas

Sunset from the skoolie texas
The sun sets on our first day in Texas

Just as we were starting to feel a bit cheated with the scenery, Texas upped it’s game. The Skoolie crossed an intersection and all of a sudden we were in Scotland.

Mountains appeared out of nowhere radiating a purplish hue remarkably similar to the heather on the Highlands.

The road from the skoolie texas
The end of the trucks and the start of the mountains

The trucks disappeared and we were taken on a stunning, winding journey through a sprawling rusty coloured landscape that ended at the isolated Big Bend National Park. The roads were empty and silent and the mountains just grew bigger and bigger. It was joyous – the kick we needed to get excited about this new, massive state and all it offered.

The beauty of Big Bend

Big Bend is the only National Park that contains an entire Mountain Range. Unfortunately, as we discovered when we arrived, big vehicles are not allowed near the picturesque crags of the Chisos Mountains. What we had planned as a week of big views and tired hiking legs had to be reworked.

Big Bend Rio Grande Texas
Luckily, Big Bend is more than mountains. It also has deserts filled with cactus, verdant riverbanks and plenty of wildlife.

By way of apology, Big Bend instead gave us glorious sunshine and let us into a little secret – enjoy that mountain backdrop from the chilled out shores and hot springs of the Rio Grande.

Hot Springs Rio Grande Texas
Delicious hot springs. It was less delicious walking 3 miles back in wet clothes while the boys smirked… I was the only one that didn’t take swimmers because I was SURE I wouldn’t be tempted.

Any thought of taking Skoolie-life for granted was quashed at Big Bend. Every moment brought us something – from the funny bobbing heads of the road runners on the campsite to the tinkling bells around the donkey’s neck on the nearby Mexican shore. Turtles swam in the rivers and at dusk the Sierra del Carmen literally glowed.

Coyote at Big Bend national park
Coyote!

I lay in bed one morning waiting for my cup of tea (thank you lovely husband!) and a coyote just wandered past. A coyote! I called the boys, partly so they could also see this elusive creature but a little bit because I had no idea where they were and wasn’t entirely sure that small boys weren’t coyote fodder!

Kids taking Skoolie-life for granted? Never!

Kids playing with bows and arrows
No plastic tat and TV for these kids – it’s all bows and arrows and tin cans!

The kids of course always take things for granted, what child doesn’t. It can be frustrating to hear them wish away their time in America, dreaming of returning home and lamenting the benefits of bricks and sticks over wheels and windows.

Clear rivers of Texas
Beautiful clear rivers full of fish

Lack of Netflix and a sofa aside, Texas was a great experience for the boys. For our desert-depressed eldest, the leafy green State Parks with their crystal clear rivers were a reminder of the open space of Montana that he loved so much. “There are trees!” he shouted gleefully as he ran from the bus like a dog who has been staring through a glass door that has suddenly opened. Freedom!

fishing state parks texas
Soz was particarly keen to spend as much time on the river as he could – one marshmallow bait for me, one for the fish…

The other side of the trees was a sight that brought glee to Guy too. Texas State Parks offer free fishing and the turquoise waters were freshly stocked with trout. Soren was next with the glee when the local fisherman advised Guy to give up with trout bait and just use marshmallows, “they look like the pellets at the hatchery”.

Meeting the alligators at Brazos Bend
Taking things for granted – as Soren met an alligator in Brazos Bend, Kit was more interested in the free WiFi offered by the visitor centre.

How the other half live.

Moving on again, the vastness of Texas was once again apparent and the long drives between State Parks were never-ending. The weather had turned and there is nothing like driving rain to make a dull drive even more boring. A particular highlight was the 180 miles without a turn – we saw more road kill than other people.

Ornate ranch gates popped up now and again. No homes in sight but plenty of fencing. The amount of land that some of these ranches cover is immense, the money unimaginable. Our brother-in-law has paraglided in Texas before, accidentally landing on a private ranch. He said that it wasn’t uncommon to come face-to-face with an African plains beast specially brought in for the thrill of someone’s personal hunt.

We needed a way to get back on track and thankfully we had an ace in the hand.

The surprise of a lifetime for the boys in Texas

Arrivals on the skoolie
Noni? NONI? NOOOONNNNNIII!!!!!!!

At home in the UK we see my mum about once a month – she misses us dreadfully.  She visited us in September in Canada but decided it was time to come out again – only this time as a surprise for the boys.

We came up with a plan to pick her up at her airport hotel in Austin, Texas, pretending she was an eBay seller we were meeting who had a present for Soren’s birthday. We found her loitering outside with a slightly dubious disguise and whisked her onto the bus ready for the big reveal. It was wonderful.  

Unlike her trip to Canada, this time we had warned her it would be less of a ‘holiday’ and more just a chance to be part of our day-to-day existence.

We had to continue with home-schooling, we had to stick to our budget and we had to drive long distances, Texas  wouldn’t do itself and we had a lot of land to cover. No problem she said and it wasn’t. She slotted in so easily it was  just as if she was visiting us on one of her regular trips to Brighton.

Baking cakes in a skoolie
It was like having my mum visit us at home – just with less space to bake cakes!

But of course it wasn’t. She had driven hours, flown even more hours, spent a lot of money and taken time off work – it wasn’t just a regular trip to visit us. As the rain lashed against the windows in Goliad, site of one of the many battles in Texas that I really tried to engage myself with but could not muster up the energy, and I cooked up yet another bowl of boring noodles for lunch before we hit the road again, it suddenly occurred to me that this was a pretty rubbish holiday. I voiced my apologies. “But I’m in Texas!” she said.  “I’m travelling in a Skoolie. You may find it normal but to everyone else it’s exciting just being part of it!”.

beach biking in Texas
14 miles of empty beach on Padre Island. Glorious. Even more so if you are playing a game of ‘pop the bluebottle jellyfish’ with your tyres. They were already dead – no need to call animal welfare on us!

Point taken. Just days later I saw through her eyes what kind of trip we were on. We biked on the deserted shores of Padre Island; fished from the rooftop at sunset on Goose Island pier, watched the heavy flying-boat-shaped pelicans skim the waves as they touched down at Magnolia Beach and spotted alligators lurking in the shallows amongst the ibis and egrets at Brazos Bend.

fishing from the bus in TExas
Bus fishing – no bites but plenty of beautiful sights

We were entertained by Texan friends, tasted mangoes with chilli and lime salt (delicious) and drank cold beers with pizza to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day in Austin. Most importantly, her boys climbed into bed for cuddles with her every morning. This was an amazing holiday.

Martin Luther King Jr Day
Martin Luther King day – it wasn’t quite what we expected… we had swotted up with some home-schooling on MLK and hoped to join the celebrations. Unlike UK holidays though, Americans like to spend public holidays at home. This university park in Austin was the only place we could find with any sign of life.

In fact the only let down was the food. Mangoes aside, we did not experience the delicious food of Texas. Our farewell meal for Ros was at an IHOP. Terrible!

Happy birthday number 2 son!

Happy Birthday on the bus
Happy beachy birthday on the bus

Back in the UK a birthday means a party with pals. You take it for granted that you can find someone to help you celebrate. Especially when you are seven. Who do you invite when you live on the road though? Yes, Noni was here but she’d already become part of bus life. We needed kids!

Pinata in Texas
Pinata in Texas – I think he’ll be asking for one every year from now on!

Luckily for us, the only friends we have really made in this part of our trip – the wonderful Airstream pals from Arizona – were wintering in their family home in Magnolia Beach. We scheduled in a birthday stop and their wonderful hospitality ensured Soren not only experienced  the joys of smashing a pinata with his pals and eating treats all day, he got to do it inside someone’s house… that is beyond exciting when you are used to living in a bus.

Friends in TExas
The best of travel buddies – it was so lovely to be able to meet up with these guys again.

Life got even better when he was invited to have a sleepover and, when asked if he would like a shower the next morning, stole my birthday wish and said, “can I have a bath instead?”!

See Y’all later Texas!

Plane on bridge in Texas
Bye Noni – we miss you! See y’all soon.

We left Texas full of the joys of travel and life on the road and a few tears (airport ones – poor Noni can’t stay with us forever despite how hard she tries!).

Next up New Orleans, the Deep South and the Louise in Louisiana!

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Skoolie Stays

Visiting National Parks – educational and inspirational

U.S National Parks - educational, inspirational and perfect for Skoolie road-trips

Vast swathes of preserved land, incredible natural wonders, wildlife in abundance, amazing hikes and educational activities – if you are on a road-trip in America, you do not want to miss the National Parks.

 

This aspect of our trip taught us that our own UK Skoolie had to have the most beautiful surroundings to achieve true glamping heaven.

ruth wimpory skoolie stays

By Ruth

Skoolie Camping in the great outdoors

Each state runs its own beautiful parks, but there are 62 National Parks run by the U.S. National Park Service, founded in 1916, that are considered to be the crown jewels of America’s diverse landscape. They host millions of people each year and are beautifully curated and preserved so that people can have the best possible access to the natural world. 


To see all 62, you’d need to visit 29 states and two U.S. territories. That wasn’t possible for us, but we bought ourselves an America the Beautiful National Parks yearly pass for $80.00 (entrance to Yellowstone is $50 alone, so it makes sense) and crammed in as many as we possibly could.

Read our top 5 parks below: 

Yellowstone

Bison crossing in Yellowstone National Park
Bison crossing in Yellowstone National Park

If National Parks are the pinnacle of America’s outdoor experiences, Yellowstone National Park is at the very tippidy top of the pile. It covers 3,472 square miles of land and has the world’s greatest concentration of geysers, mud pots, fumaroles, hot springs and the largest number of free-roaming wildlife in the lower 48 states. The Grand Loop Road that circles around inside, close to most of the major attractions, is 142 miles long and it gives you the chance to see bison, grizzly bears, eagles, moose, elk and the relatively recently reintroduced, grey wolves. 

 

We watched geysers shooting high into the sky, stared at bottomless turquoise pools and following winding canyons that rivalled Grand Canyon in drama. Our absolute favourite part was the Lamar Valley though. We went at dawn, winding through the herds of bison as they crossed the road in front of us and spotting grizzlies. We parked up alongside the road for a coffee and, as we climbed onto the roof-deck, we could hear the wolves howling. From our incredible vantage point we were actually able to spot two wolves hunting the bison – the surrounding cars had no idea what we were looking at. 

 

All that in mind, it does not take a genius to work out why people recommend booking Yellowstone in advance.  We arrived in the heart of the summer though and managed to snag two nights at one of the National Park campgrounds. We also free-camped in the Bridger-Teton Forest (to the east of neighbouring park, Grand Teton) and off the John D Rockerfeller Jr Highway (close to the south entrance). We also found a beautiful spot in the Shoshone Forest (just outside the gates to the north-east and perfect for early morning wolf-watching in the Lamar valley.  

 

Where we stayed

Yellowstone is incredibly popular – it had 4,020,288 visitors in 2019 – so it is worth planning ahead. If you haven’t, it is possible to do it last-minute We arrived in the heart of the summer and managed to snag two nights at Bridge Bay Campgroundone of the National Park campgrounds. We also free-camped in the Bridger-Teton Forest (to the east of neighbouring park, Grand Teton), off the John D Rockerfeller Jr Highway (close to the south entrance) and in forest land near West Yellowstone gate. Our top spot was a beautiful spot pull-in by the river in the Shoshone Forest (just outside the gates to the north-east and perfect for early morning wolf-watching in the Lamar valley.  We spent a week enjoying the park and only paid for two nights – a bargain at $26pn!

Yosemite

Yosemite National Park from the roof of our skoolie
Yosemite Valley from the roof-deck of our Skoolie

Yosemite is one of America’s most popular parks and we were expecting it to be busy and impersonal. It is absolutely stunning though – you spend most of the time in a fairly small portion – the Yosemite Valley – and everywhere you look the views are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. 

 

We hiked up to the top of Yosemite Falls and though there was no waterfall, it was the end of a very dry summer, the views were spectacular. Our favourite part of the park though was El Capitan. As a treat for climbing the Falls, we watched Alex Honnold’s Free Solo on the laptop and the boys became obsessed with bouldering. We spent hours watching the climbers on the rock face, tracking their slow progress with binoculars. Is that him? Maybe, just maybe…

Where we stayed

Yosemite is even more popular than Yellowstone. In 2019 it had 4,442,861 visitors. It’s much smaller – or at least Yosemite Valley is – so you need to get your campsite booked asap. There are some free / cheap options if you are in a small vehicle / tent, but in a Skoolie the closest we could get to free was a Boondockers Welcome home about an hour away.

Glacier

Top of Going to the Sun Road
Glacier was an unspoilt, pristine wilderness

Back in the UK we had never heard of Glacier. When you get to America, and specifically Montana, it’s a different story. Despite the state being three times the size of England and full of wilderness, wildlife and stunning mountain passes (check out our video of Skalkaho Pass!), every local spoke wistfully of Glacier National Park and the incredible hiking opportunities. We primed the boys and packed the treats! 

 

We hiked some incredible trails , taking the Trail of the Cedars through huge old Red Cedars full of deep, dark crevices, then branching (no pun intended!) off to Avalanche Lake. This gradual two-mile incline took us up through the forest past chipmunks and ground squirrels, fallen trees, moss-strewn boulders and streams – remnants of an old glacier that forged a path here. Eventually it all opened out to a circle of mountains complete with waterfalls – all of which were cascading into the stunning, turquoise Avalanche Lake. It was unbelievably picturesque and serene, despite the number of people on the same walk. 

 

We also took on part of the Highline Trail and Hidden Lake Overlook Trail at the top of the passThe views were spectacular, a deep blue lake flanked by steep crevices and Sperry Glacier. Further down on the other side of the park, we enjoyed St Mary Falls, then on to the slightly higher Virginia Falls. It was a beautiful, relatively quiet seven-mile return walk alongside the glacial St Mary Lake, past Baring Falls and underneath the scarred Rockies. 

Our favourite part of the week was our mega-trek. We had built the boys up to an 10-miler, and chosen Iceberg Lake as our chosen walk. We’d been learning a lot about trees through the Junior Ranger packs, and we were able to identify Lodgepole Pine through the cones and could see signs of how the forest was rejuvenating itself through its growth patterns. The view down the valley, thick with trees and with no development or people in sight, felt like one of the wildest places we had been and when we arrived at the glacial lake in the mountains, we heard the crunch and creak of cracking ice and watched a huge chunk break free from the face. Incredible.

 

Where we stayed

 

You cannot drive anything over 21ft over the Going to the Sun road, the only route through the park, so the most obvious thing to do is camp at Apgar or St Mary’s Visitor Centres in West Glacier or St Mary’s respectively.  From here, Glacier National Park offer a free shuttle – it’s a killer of a queue waiting for it, but it does mean you can explore the park. We also stayed at Many Glacier campsite, which was much busier. Get there early and be prepared to queue for vacating spots. 

Big Bend

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend is a wondrous place. It’s difficult to get to – well it takes a long time (everywhere in Texas takes a long time!), but it was well worth the trip. It is the only National Park that contains an entire Mountain Range – the Chisos. Unfortunately you can’t drive big vehicles into the campsites at the base of the Chisos so we had to rethink our week of big views and tired hiking legs. Instead we headed to the Rio Grande

 

It was magnificent. We had glorious sunshine and and the Sierra del Carmen literally glowed at sunset. We had some gorgeous walks from the campsite to the Hot Springs, where you can soak in the water before walking back along the river to camp. There was also a nature walk that jutted out onto a pinnacle. Surrounded by the curve of the river, Mexico just a stones throw away, it was a wonderful place to watch some of the hundreds of variety of birds, including the bobbing heads of road-runners as they pelted ahead of us; listen to the bells around the necks of the Mexican donkeys as the grazed on the river bank and laugh at the turtles as they plopped off branches into the river. 

 

Our favourite part? As I was lying in bed one morning drinking my tea, a coyote wandered past. A coyote! I called the boys, partly so they could also see this elusive creature but a little bit because I had no idea where they were and wasn’t entirely sure that small boys weren’t coyote fodder!

Where we stayed

We stayed in the Rio Grande campsite in the south of the park. Originally disappointed because we had wanted to be in the heart of the Chisos (and you can’t take large vehicles down the road leading to the base), it actually turned out to be an incredible spot. There was lots to do there and the scenery was stunning – all the beauty of the riverside with the Chisos as a backdrop. 

Banff National Park

Emerald Lake in Fall
Caption

The Canadian Rockies had long been on my list of places to visit. Right at the top was the Icefields Parkway, part of Banff and Jasper National Parks, which runs from Lake Louise to Jasper. The Icefields Parkway is one of the ‘must-do’ things in Canada in a Skoolie (according to every list ever written!) and we were not disappointed. We were on the cusp of Autumn and as we drove the Icefields Parkway the leaves were changing to a beautiful array of reds and golds. The road is beautiful but it is long – it takes a good few hours to drive it – so we broke it up with a hike above the Athabasca glacier, stopped for two nights so that we could visit Maligne Canyon, then, on our return, stopped at Sunwapta and Athabasca Falls. 

 

The highlight of the Canadian parks was Lake Louise in Banff National Park. Of all the places we visited, this spot was the most touristy but it really is spectacular. We lucked out with a glorious, sunny day and the impossibly turquoise-blue water was shimmering, the mountains surrounding them were golden with autumnal larch trees and the snow capped peaks were a stark white against the blue skies. We escaped the crowds by heading past the beach at the far end of the Lake and following the valley up to the Plain of Six Glaciers tea house. From there it was a steep-ish trail to view the Plain of Six Glaciers themselves, then on to the Highline trail and the Little Beehive trail. We had phenomenal views over Lake Louise’s cloudy, glacial, turquoise water on one side and Emerald Lake on the other,  a sharp contrast with it’s clear green water. We hiked down the switchbacks and had tea in Lake Agnes tea house before climbing down to Lake Louise, sun-kissed, wind-swept and ready for a Canadian beer!

Where we stayed

We stayed in Tunnel Mountain Campground in Banff, which was fab. We actually hired a car to do the Parkway because we had guests with us and wanted to make sure we could park, so we left the Skoolie there for a couple of days. Back at Lake Louise, reunited with the bus (oh how we missed it!), we stayed cheaply at the overflow parking site – it worked perfectly as there was a shuttle that took us straight past the car park queues, right to the lake itself.

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

How to go to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park on a budget

If you are on a roadtrip around America, chances are you are going to take in as many National Parks as you can. These huge areas of land showcase some of the most stunning and diverse landscapes the country has to offer. They are packed full of geographical wonders, wildlife in abundance, amazing hikes, historical information, educational activities for children and, for those living on wheels, some darn excellent camping spots.

The problem is they don’t come cheap and they don’t conform to a last-minute schedule. Not if you are in a large R.V anyway. If you don’t mind living under canvas, you can back-country camp with a permit, or turn up at smaller campsites that don’t take bookings, but neither of these are an option in a 38ft yellow school bus. You can’t just pull over wherever you feel like it either, there is no hiding in Yellowstone; our home only works for ‘stealth camping’ if we park up outside a school and small American children are not the kind of animals we plan on spotting! Campsites are booked months in advance and, with a captive audience, no doubt expensive.

We are neither rich nor organised, but we really wanted to do Yellowstone and Grand Teton, so we decided to go anyway and see if it was possible to do it cheaply and without pre-planning.

Why go to Yellowstone National Park? Is it worth it?

Beautiful scenery at yellowstone
Beautiful scenery at every turn: Yellowstone is a top destination for outdoors lovers

If National Parks are the pinnacle of America’s outdoor experiences, Yellowstone National Park is at the very tippidy top of the pile. It is the first American National Park and has the world’s greatest concentration of geysers, mud pots, fumaroles, hot springs and the largest number of free-roaming wildlife in the lower 48 states. You can spot bison, grizzly bears, eagles, moose, elk and the relatively recently reintroduced, grey wolves from the road, whilst watching geysers shoot high into the sky or staring into bottomless turquoise pools or following winding canyons that rival Grand Canyon in drama.

All that in mind, it does not take a genius to work out why people recommend booking Yellowstone in advance. It is supposed to be a year-round park but winter conditions close many of the routes and presumably limit the amount of camping options. Spring and summer are a different story; all 3,472 square miles of land can be explored and it is absolutely massive; the Grand Loop Road that circles around inside, close to most of the major attractions, is 142 miles long alone!

Why didn’t we book?

Grand Teton view
Free spirits – we want to pull over wherever and whenever we want!

We always knew we wanted to go to Yellowstone, it was marked on our planning map as one of the key first places to visit. So, given the American penchant for road trips and camping, coupled with the potential ‘wilderness experience’ of the National Park and the summer holidays, why didn’t we plan ourselves better?

When we arrived in Salt Lake City we had no idea which direction we would travel (or even if we would travel at all!). All we knew is that we wanted to go where we felt like going; follow recommendations when they came and stop and start at will. It sounds a bit airy fairy, but that is surely the joy of living on the road? It also has to be the reality – if you get a bus issue, who knows how long you might get stuck in some random town waiting for parts.

Research into Yellowstone was starting to make us think we would have to abandon our free-spiritedness. The excellently helpful ‘Traveling family’ @thewebbproject, who we met at the Grand Teton Distillery, felt that this wasn’t the case though. We just need to work in a bit of balance. They told us that they get together a rough route and then book the hot spots in plenty of time. They then use these dates as a guide to get them there – meandering a little if they are moving too fast, speeding up with a couple of long drives if they are lagging behind. It sounds like good advice.

What about Grand Teton National Park?

Cascade Canyon Grand Teton National Park
Contemplating Moose at Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park

We started our National Park adventure in Jackson Hole, which is actually at the southern entrance to Grand Teton National Park, which sits below Yellowstone. The two parks join together but somehow Grand Teton seems to be ignored in the National obsession to visit Yellowstone. It’s very different – far more mountainous. We had never even heard of it. Well almost. We were both reading Bill Bryson when we arrived and he mentions the Tetons. Our top fact was that they were discovered by the Canadian French who had named them because their snowy peaks looked a little like breasts (those French!). Teton is actually an old word for cow’s teats, which makes you wonder what the explorers lady-friends boobs looked like.

Breasts aside, Grand Teton National Park has some beautiful lakes, the Snake River, bears a-plenty and the Teton range of mountains, which sit along an active fault line and many of which rise over 11,000 feet.

Back to the issue: How do you visit both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park without booking in advance?

Old Faithful, Yellowstone
Old Faithful geyser, erupting faithfully!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It is also a useless thing if you are just a few miles south of the park with nowhere to stay that night. We stopped in Jackson Hole, a few miles from the south entrance to Grand Teton, to get some WiFi and plan what to do.

Entering the park is not the problem, you can sort this out at the gate or at the tourist information centres. No planning required! The entrance fee at the gate is $25.00 per vehicle. The pass can be used for seven days and will get you in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. You can buy a one-year pass for $50.00 if you live close to Yellowstone / go a lot, but if you are touring, like us, it makes sense to get a National Parks pass – America the Beautiful – for $80.00. This gets you in to all national parks in the country. It seems camping is the sticky point.

What to do if you haven’t booked a campsite?

Beautiful and free campsites in Grand Teton national park
Beautiful and free campsites are available just outside the National Parks

Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton are surrounded by National Forest, which we know provide cheap or free camping sites that you do not have to book in advance. Yellowstone is so massive that it takes ages to drive to the edges of the park, seriously compromising any opportunities for early or late wildlife spotting, but Grand Teton is not nearly as popular as Yellowstone and is not as big. A quick search on Wikicamps identified a few potential spots in the Bridger-Teton Forest that were only 20 minutes from the park gate. We decided to risk it.

Yellowstone has 5 bookable, what I would consider budget, campsites in the heart of the park, which you can book via Xanterra. 1 of them – Fishing Bridge – is closed until next year. There are some more expensive private RV sites, but as I pointed out in the last post, these are not for us. I tried to find space online but the Xanterra website was not working well for us – it showed everything as booked, was difficult to navigate and I wasn’t sure if things were  actually booked or the screen had just not refreshed properly. I was about to give up but then I read on a forum that it pays to call them as there are often last minute bookings. We did this and wwwwaaaahhhey… they had space for us at Bridge Bay Campground, next to Yellowstone Lake, for for two nights at $26 per night. Booked – Yahay! It was neither impossible nor expensive!

As a note for anyone else planning a trip to Yellowstone, as well as the bookable sites, there are several ‘turn up on the day’ sites. Most of these last-minute ones are not suitable for larger vehicles and fill up by about 9am. You have to be lucky and probably have a plan B, but if you have a tent or a small camper then I’m sure you could chance it. All the visitor centres list the campsites and show what time they filled up the day before, so you can get a good idea of where to head if that is your plan.

How long do you need to visit Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park?

Morning Glory pool
Morning Glory pool – turquoise forever!

This really depends on what kind of person or family you are. We spent 8 days in the environs of Grand Teton and Yellowstone but it was a very leisurely 8 days. We didn’t spend all day, every day exploring because it very quickly becomes too much. It was very busy at the tourist hotspots and the Grand Loop Road often has lengthy traffic jams because a bear or a bison has wandered onto the road. With all this traffic it felt far more like a safari park than a great natural wilderness. The tourist hot spots, full of activities and museums etc, were also a bit too reminiscent of Centerparcs for my liking, with signage everywhere and happy rangers on hand to give you a jolly welcome. The kids loved the educational activites, all of which contribute to them earning a junior ranger badge. They learnt about conservation, how geysers work and the science behind predicting an eruption…. there’s some good home-schooling right there!

The best bits of both parks are the views you get when the people thin out and disappear. We got up super early on two mornings to drive the Lamar Valley – the Serengeti of North America – and saw bison galore, grizzly bear, black bear, elk and even 2 wolves (which might have been coyotes… we certainly heard wolves just before we saw them though). From the deck of our bus we had the best view of all the action. Ha ha cars!

Where did we stay, was it good and what did it cost?

Bison crossing Lamar Valley
Bison crossing Lamar Valley

To go back to costs and planning, only two of those eight nights were inside the park at Bridge Bay Campsite. We spent 4 nights in free forest land bordering the parks and 4 nights in paid-for campsites in neighbouring towns. All of them I would recommend.

Upper Teton View campsite – FREE

We stayed at this lovely spot – Upper Teton View – just east of the main highway through Grand Teton. It provides easy access to Grand Teton Park – you can backtrack 20 minutes to the south gate for Jenny Lake or continue for 30 minutes to the north gate, where you can visit Jackson Lake or Colter Canyon.

The site was up an unpaved, bumpy road and we were nervous about the bus, but we’d read that it was worth the drive. For the feint of heart, there is a lower Teton View that you reach first. Several bigger RV’s were pulled in here and there was even a mobile ranger station if you wanted to get some tips. If you want to continue to Upper Teton, carry on up the bumpy path. It gets pretty steep and at one point, you reach a fork. DO NOT TAKE THE RIGHT. We did, it was difficult to drive and when we ended up at the top we found just two campsite spaces that were full. We had to go all the way down to Lower Teton View, turn around and do the while hill again. Eventually we got back up to the top (and breathe!), to find several camping spots.

The view was breathtakingly gorgeous and the folk camping were lovely. Night one we were closer to the trees and got bitten by mosquitoes, but night two we parked in a more open space and it was perfect. As the mountains turned orange at sunset, we had that ‘this is why we are travelling’ moment!

Jenny Lake

Swearing in as Junior Park Rangers
Swearing in as Junior Park Rangers

From Upper Teton it is easy to get into the south of Teton National Park. First thing in the morning we went to Jenny Lake and did a gorgeous walk around the bright blue water to the hidden waterfall (you can get a boat if the 2 miles are too much). We continued up to the hidden waterfall (where most of the boat people turn around) and then continued into Cascade Canyon – as delightful as it sounds. It reminded Guy and I of happy days trekking in Torres del Paine in Patagonia, except it was moose on the path instead of alpaca and our pockets were full of incentivising sweets instead of trail mix. We also had two extra, slightly less motivated trekkers in our team! We caught the boat back instead of taking the 2 mile trek – ouch, a big queue and a big ticket; one way was $38. A return was $50.

Colter Canyon

We spent the next day around Colter Canyon Village, which I don’t think had any particular merit. The best bit was the chaos that ensued when a grizzly bear appeared close to the lakeside beach. We watched it being fielded off by rangers carrying pepper spray. Our first real grizzly!

Grassy Lake Road Campsite – FREE

Magical sunsets
Magical sunsets

We wanted to stop as close to Yellowstone as possible the night before entering our second of the parks – the best way to beat the queues. There are 20 dispersed sites just off the Rockerfeller Highway, the link road between Grand Teton and the South Entrance of Yellowstone.

We got there quite late and followed the turning onto Grassy Lake Road. It’s tarmac at first but then it hits fairly smooth gravel for a few miles. When I had read 20 dispersed sites, I assumed 20 campgrounds. This was wrong – it was actually 20 camping sites across several areas. Areas 1 – 4 are down by the river. They all had between 2 and 4 spaces and all of those were full. After site 4, the road turns inland a bit. Site 5, which has 1 space available, comes next and then there is several miles to reach the next camping spot near the reservoir. There are more spots there, and we met several campers heading that way, but we were worried about the windy gravel road getting steeper. The parking spot in 5 is set back from the road but we figured there would be space to turn and so we decided to stop there and assess our options – perhaps we should go back to Upper Teton? As we rumbled along to the end of site 5, lady luck was on our side…. the spot was free. Everyone passing it must have assumed it was full. We had our own campspot, complete with a serviced long-drop toilet and bear box, for the night!

This one is Guy’s favourite spot so far. It felt like we were deep in the wilderness, tall grasses and trees all around us. We had the sounds of nature clicking and swishing and calling all night. We didn’t see any bears, but it felt more like bear country than anywhere else we had been. Fabulous!

Top tip – if you are in a big rig like ours, it’s worth running down to check if the spaces are full in 1 -4 as it can be hard to see from the road. We got stuck turning back out of one after a failed investigation and it took a 10-point-turn to get ourselves back on the road again!

Old Faithful and the geyser basin

We got into Yellowstone early and headed in the opposite direction to our campsite so that we could visit Old Faithful. This geyser erupts about every 90 minutes and sits in a geyser basin full of other wonderous sites. Parking the big bus was a concern, but there is plenty of space if you get there before 9.30am.

The geysers were fun – perhaps a bit overhyped – but the hot springs and pools were fascinating. Clear blue ringed with orange and red – all with names that seemed to come with a story: Abyss; Beauty; Dragon’s Breath; Black Growler. One dad that I was walking behind was joking to his complaining daughter that each one was named after the person who fell into it: Beryl; Daisy; Pearl… it was going well until they reached one called ‘Infant’ and then it got a bit dark. The stories stopped!

It was busy at Old Faithful but not so much that you couldn’t move. It was unforgivingly hot though (and smelt of eggs, according to Soren…. alot!)

Bridge Bay Campground, Yellowstone National Park – $26 per night

We entered proper campsite territory. Bridge Bay is the biggest of the sites and there were lots of campers. That said, it is well-managed, clean and tidy. There is a big outdoor amphitheatre where they show films and give talks every night – the boys were super keen to attend (it was at 9.30pm and it was about coyotes and wolves so they imagined a late night and wild animals!) but after about 15 minutes of unengaging waffle (and a very dull slide show) of the tale of ‘Old Man Coyote and his bargain with the wolf’, they were keen to go home to bed!

Bridge Bay is on the central loop of the park, so it is an easy one to work into your plans. We had to double back on ourselves a couple of times, so a more organised person than us should really book camps at different spots.

There were lots of elk wandering around the campsite. It’s lovely until you want to go to the toilet and a horse-sized creature with massive antlers is in the way of the ladies loo. Brilliant.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Bison jam!
Bison jam! Add some time to your journey as they will not get out of your way!

On the east side of Grand Loop Road is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I guess Grand Canyon has the copyright on the first two words and so you have to include the last two! The Yellowstone River plunges 1200 feet and the thermal waters have cut a fascinating channel through the rock, tinging everything with a golden-yellow hue. It’s very beautiful and also very busy. We followed the main route to Artist’s Point accompanied by bus loads of visitors, which detracted slightly from the incredible views. We decided to lose the noise and headed inland on a quieter trail. This is definitely the way to do Yellowstone; we saw a handful of people for the rest of the walk and had meadows filled with wildflowers, mud pools, hot springs and elk all to ourselves.

Cooke City – Clarks Fork, Shoshone National Forest – FREE

This was a dreamboat of a spot, not far from the east entrance. This is one end of the Lamar Valley and if you stay here, you can drive the Lamar first thing in the morning. We had already driven it once to reach the exit / entrance, but it was too late in the day and too busy.

The bend in the river, where we parked up, was a designated dispersed site. One other R.V was there but we didn’t see any people – perhaps they had left it whilst exploring the park. The water was clear and gurgling, the backdrop of the Beartooth mountains was impressive, the forest was thick and green and the sunset glorious. If it wasn’t already colonised by a gazillion mosquitoes it would have been perfect. Windows closed and a killing spree solved the problem more or less. It was worth the few bites though to watch the sun come up over the mountains.

The Lamar Valley

Wolf watching over breakfast
Wolf watching over breakfast in the Lamar Valley

When the tourist info lady marked out the Lamar valley as a ‘must-see’, we figured that we weren’t being let into a little secret. Everyone was going to be doing the Lamar to see the wildlife. We decided to do it early and set off from Bridge Bay at 6.30am. By the time we got there, it was well after 9am. It’s not that far, but this is the land of the bison and they like to stand in the way of the traffic. We didn’t see much so drove out and stayed in the spot mentioned above.

The next day was a different story – we left at 6.30 and were on the main road through the Lamar by 7am. We saw bear, bison and even a couple of wolves. Totally worth the early start and the different start point. If you want to see wildlife, definitely do it early.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Sorry Yellowstone but why is Mammoth a highlight? If you go in to the park from the north, perhaps it is a bit more exciting. If you leave from the north though, having seen everything else, Mammoth is…. a mammoth disappointment!

Eagle Creek – Gardiner – $7 per night

We stopped a night outside of Gardiner in a managed campsite in the Gallatin National Forest. It was up a very steep hill – scary bus territory – but we made it. All the spots were taken but we passed the ranger on the way in and, as the sites are massive, we just shared a space with someone else. It rained so we didn’t do a great deal other than sleep.

Gardiner was nice – after a week in the wilderness it was good to have proper food and coffees again. It was less good to find that all of Kit’s presents, which I had ordered from Amazon to be delivered to the Gardiner Post Office by General Delivery, had been returned to sender. It turns out that you can send post to be held at U.S post offices for a month (like poste restante) but they don’t accept UPS deliveries. Amazon, of course, use UPS. Arrrggghhhh!

Rainbow Point – West Yellowstone – $20 per night

Kayaking on earthquake lake
Kayaking on Earthquake Lake – created when an earthquake triggered a landslide that blocked the Missouri River as it flowed into Hebgen Lake, close to where we stayed. 

West Yellowstone is a major entry point to Yellowstone and so every other shop is a tourist trap selling t-shirts and huckleberry products. It has an IMAX, supermarket, ice cream stand and hardware store – everything a civilisation-deprived family might need. It also has the Wolf and Grizzly Discovery Centre. It’s a non-profit place which has lots of info on animals, which frankly we’d had plenty of at the visitor centres in Yellowstone, but also has rescued animals. We got to see wolves and bears a little closer, with a lot more protection. I’d say it is a tad overpriced – it cost us $45 for 4. Your ticket gets you in for two days, but you really are done within an hour or so. You can pay more to hide food for the bears to find – $5 more – but I dissuaded the boys from doing that.

We stayed at Rainbow Point on the Hebgen Reservoir. It was a nice wooded site about 20 minutes outside of West Yellowstone. Completely booked up on the weekend, so as it was Thursday evening we just made a flying visit. This was one of the areas affected by the 1959 earthquake and landslide, which created Earthquake Lake which we went on to visit. Guy spotted a grizzly yards from our camp. Yikes!

So how much did it cost

We did it last minute, so what did we spend? Overall we spent less than $150 for the week (not including park entrance as we have the pass for the year). We spent less than $80 on accommodation for 8 nights, and the educational activities were just $3 per child. The boat at Jenny Lake added on a chunk, that we probably should have avoided,  and we did a pricey shop in Colter Canyon to buy bread and eggs and milk ($25!).  If we had been more organised we could have saved cash there as well.

The long and short of it is that yes, it is do-able on a budget and do-able last minute. Go to Yellowstone and Grand Teton – they are fabulous.

Categories
Skoolie Stays

Our year in an American school-bus

A year in a Skoolie

Finally, after months of planning, we flew out to Utah in the United States to begin our year-long adventure travelling in a converted school bus – a Skoolie

ruth wimpory skoolie stays

By Ruth

The start of the adventure - summer 2019

When we started planning our trip on a map in our UK living room, we had a route that spiralled through the Lonely Planet highlights of America, weaving our way through Alberta, B.C and the Yukon, eventually reaching Alaska. I wanted bears, Orca and wild salmon leaping. I wanted to camp out in the Denali Park wilderness under the Northern lights   – it looked incredible. We soon realised though, incredible did not mean realistic. Our trip was entirely dictated by two things: where our builder lived and when the kids broke up from school. That meant flying into Salt Lake City, home to our builder, in mid-July 2019, with temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  

 

Alaska has a narrow summer window – we simply wouldn’t make it – and there was no way we could travel south in such intense heat, which struck off many of the National Parks that America is famous for: Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Moab… it was a sharp blow. But then we realised, it actually took the pressure off and gave us freedom. Travelling in a home on wheels to places you know very little about meant we could meander wherever we wanted, follow the good weather and stay as long as we liked. We ended up having a unique and incredible adventure – a real road-trip into the unknown.

Picking up our American school bus

We picked up our bus two days after we arrived in America.  Our builder 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. 

Mirrors are your friend

Skoolie driver
Guy had to learn how to drive the bus fast - one loop around a car park to practice and we were on our way!

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. Our builder 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 You Tube 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. 

Utah, Idaho & Wyoming

We spent a glorious two weeks soaking up the sun in the slightly cooler northern Utah, making the most of the National Forest campsites, finding our way with the Skoolie and learning its (and our) travelling quirks. When you live a self-sufficient life you need to get used to relying on solar (not a problem in a Utah summer), composting toilets (also, amazingly, a simple smell-free solution) and reduced water (more problematic as we didn’t know where to refill!). 

Our route towards Yellowstone dipped into Idaho, where we kick-started our Harvest Host’s membership (a scheme that gives Skoolies and other RV’s the chance to camp for free and try the produce at small farms, distilleries, breweries, vineyards etc.

 

After some debate at the distillery bar about how steep the passes into Yellowstone were, we opted for a longer drive through Wyoming that took in more of the incredible scenery. It allowed us to approach Grand Teton and Yellowstone from Jackson Hole in the south. 

We spent a week in the Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. You can read more about this trip, as well as how we managed it on our budget, here.

Montana

Montana is so heavily wooded that fires are the norm during summer. They ravage the landscape, affect visibility and leave a smoky smell everywhere. Happily for us, Montana was having an unusual weather year  – a wet spring kept temperatures cooler and Montana’s summer was hot, clear, lush and fresh. Many people told us we were experiencing it at its best and they were right, it was a total joy to travel and camp. 

 

Living in a Skoolie gave us the freedom to enjoy Montana – we spent a month fishing, hiking and kayaking, we bought bikes and explored further afield, we spent a week hiking in Glacier National Park, one of our favourites, and got dangerously close to grizzly bears.  It was the perfect way to settle into Skoolie life. This was no longer a holiday, it was a way of life.  

Alberta & Vancouver

The Canadian Rockies had long been on my list of places to visit. Right at the top was the Icefields Parkway, part of Banff and Jasper National Parks, which runs from Lake Louise to Jasper. It is is one of the ‘must-do’ things in Canada in a Skoolie (according to every list ever written!), full of epic scenery, amazing hikes and wildlife galore.

We arrived in autumn (or fall!) and the weather was getting chilly. Just like Montana though, we lucked out – we had gorgeous sunshine for much of the time and could fully enjoy the reds, golds, yellows and greens of the autumnal forests set against the turquoise glacial lakes. It was stunning.

 

Our route took us from Lake Louise to Vancouver (yay, city fun with old friends!), then on to Vancouver Island and Pacific Rim Nature Reserve. This must have been one of my favourite sites – right in the heart of the old forest, surrounded by  Douglas Firs and Red Cedars. The forest floor was densely packed with fallen logs, ferns and fungi, tiny creatures and earthy smells. I loved it. To make it even better, a short path led to a huge beach – miles of crashing waves and yellow sand covered with twisted driftwood and long ropes of seaweed. 

 

You can read more about the hikes we took and the places we explored in our travel blog. You can also read about how we fared with visitors – in Canada, four became six for three weeks.

 

Washington & Oregon

After a month in Canada, cold weather nipping at our heels, we felt ready for a new chapter of our travels. Our plan, guided by a need for sunshine, was to scoot down south as quickly as we could, leaving the forests and mountains behind. Night drives down Highway 5 beckoned – one long freeway that would take us from Vancouver through to Southern California. But then, as is always the case, we looked at the map and doubt entered our mind. What about Washington and Oregon? Rain-forests and Redwoods, wild seas and sprawling beaches, how could we miss all that? Should we continue to gamble with the weather and take it a little slower?

 

Of course we did! And it was well worth the wild weather we experienced. After a hairy drive / slide over black ice on a mountain pass and freezing, snowy nights at Olympic National Park, we took on the coastline. We joined the infamous Highway 101 south of Aberdeen and followed it south, crossing into Oregon at Astoria. The coastline was rugged and impressive – huge spurting blowholes, cliffs and miles of golden sand dunes backed by thick forest. 

 

Read more about our Washington and Oregon trip (and how we incorporated home-skooling into our adventure) here.

California

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 California fires had taken hold and we had to go inland. 

 

We found a side to California I was barely aware of. Small gold-panning towns and stunning vineyards, incredible Halloween extravaganzas, cheesy neon diners , huge slot canyons and more critters than you could dream of. We somehow managed to sneak into Yosemite before the fires closed it off and had three idyllic days searching for Alex Honnold on El Capitan through our binoculars, and even made it to Joshua Tree National Park for cactus and bouldering fun. 

 

Read about how, six months in, we felt we had adapted to life in a Skoolie in California.

Arizona and New Mexico

Suddenly, instead of heading south along the western length of America, we were headed east. Looming in the distance was the Rockies – a literal hump that represented a much bigger marker, the half-way hump of our trip. 

 

Nowhere does empty roads quite like the American desert. It was a long drive of nothingness; mile upon mile of scrubby land and windswept bits of tumbleweed. We were relieved to see our first Saguaro cactus and the colourful lights of Tucson. After weeks of barren desert, everything sandy yellow or spiky green, the landscape suddenly shifted into a state of colour and life. As we reached the Mexico and New Mexico border there were even a few bodies of water – Patagonia Lakes and Whitewater Draw – a Mecca to migrating birdlife. Crested birds of different colours swooped above us; herons fished alongside our bus and owls called out at night. We got up at dawn to watch thousands of cranes take to the skies, squawking and croaking like a group of cranky pterodactyls.

 

The boys discovered a love of caves in Arizona’s Kartchner Caverns so we took them to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. They said it was the best thing they had done in America – this was closely matched by White Sands National Park– where you can sled down the pure white gypsum dunes.

 

Read more about our quest to find friendship and fun in the desert here

Texas

We knew it would take us an age to cross Texas in a Skoolie but over the course of the journey we’d leave the desert behind and find the Gulf Coast and the Deep South as well as music, art, fresh produce and delicious Tex-Mex food.

 

The first Texan treat for us was Big Bend National Park – every moment brought us something new to look at – from the funny bobbing heads of the road runners on the campsite to the tinkling bells around the donkey’s neck on the nearby Mexican shore. Turtles swam in the rivers and at dusk the Sierra del Carmen literally glowed. 

 

Texas continued to reveal its treasures: we biked on the deserted shores of Padre Island; fished from the rooftop at sunset on Goose Island pier, watched the heavy flying-boat-shaped pelicans skim the waves as they touched down at Magnolia Beach and spotted alligators lurking in the shallows amongst the ibis and egrets at Brazos Bend.

 

Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama

The Deep South. The words conjure up an array of images, each promising a very different picture of America to that which we have experienced so far. We were entering Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, each state a centre for the chequered history surrounding slavery, war and poverty, but also a heartland for the music, food and Southern way of life that charms travellers from around the globe. It offered a completely different element to our road-trip.

 

We visited a plantation, making sure to go to one that recognised slavery rather than the many that focus more on mint juleps and hoop skirts. We also managed to find somewhere to stay in New Orleans the weekend before Mardi Gras. We watched the parades, caught the beads and soaked up the street life of one of the coolest cities in America. 

 

 Read more about trip in the deep south here

Florida

What do you think of when I write the words Florida? Sandy beaches, glorious sunshine,  Disney? It’s the perfect holiday destination…. well until you realise that every other RV traveller and European winter escapee has that same image of themselves sipping cocktails at the sunset beach bar, watching rockets launch from Cape Canaveral, taking day trips into the mangroves to spot alligators and swimming with manatees in the fresh water springs.

Florida was full. Every campsite we tried was rammed, every activity was booked up and we spent every evening poring over road maps and trip planner books to try and find the best solution. How on earth would we ‘do Florida’? The answer was to do it in the way we had done every other state – on our own agenda.

 

We had three incredible weeks enjoying the beaches on the panhandle,  touring Harry Potter World at Universal Studios and kayaking in the mangroves and springs with manatees and alligators. Our wiggly route also saw us volunteering at a goat farm and joining a crowd of locals across the water from NASA to watch a night-time rocket launch. Florida ended up being one of our favourite destinations. 

 

Enthuse with us over Florida at our travel blog.

Georgia

We arrived in Georgia at the same time the news arrived that the UK had gone into COVID-19 lockdown. America was not far behind, so we took refuge with a group of Skoolies at the Skoolie Homestead Community. We expected to stay a week or two but the healthcare crisis in America, coupled with our travel insurance company refusing to cover anything pandemic-related, we ended up there for two months. 

 

The Homestead was the perfect place for us to experience a lockdown. Although it was hot, humid and full of gnats and mozzies, it had a brilliant communal area and lovely people, all of who had chosen too live a bus-life. This was the first time we’d really met other Skoolie families and there were several of them within the same field. There were other kids to play with and space to run around,  people played music and chatted, offering Skoolie advice and stories. We had found the community we had been looking for for months and it was here that we started to hatch our plan – could we take our bus back to the UK? 

 

Read more about how Covid-19 affected our Skoolie road-trip and the amazing Skoolie community here

Tennessee North and South Carolina

We were hesitant about leaving the Skoolie Homestead when Covid-19 was still a threat, but we only had one month left of our year-long adventure. The delay in Georgia had already meant that we would fail to do the east coast in its entirety, but we still had time for a trip to the Smokies. It had to be done. Besides, what better way to isolate than keeping to yourself in a bus in wide open spaces.  

 

The campsites started to open up so we took that as our sign and headed through South Carolina into the mountains, stopping at several Harvest Hosts breweries and distilleries along the way, which helped us learn more about how the virus was affecting small producers. The Black Lives Matters debate was also raging across the cities in America and, though we saw very little of it in the rural parks, it was fascinating to see how suburban and rural Americans responded to the crisis. 

 

We finished our trip off with a visit to Charleston and Savannah. We were meant to be in New York for 4th July celebrations. Instead we parked opposite downtown Savannah, across the river, listened to jazz music floating across the water and toasted our incredible trip. 

 

Read more about how we found the Black Lives Matter debate in rural areas of the deep south. 

Completing our tour of America