How we turned trash into treasure, taking a bus off the roads and turning it into a sustainable glamping destination.
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
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.
Addressing the impact of water, waste and power
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.
Looking toward nature to find design solutions
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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!
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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
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
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!
We’ve been asked by a number of our British pals if the Black Lives Matter protests and riots in America have affected our trip. They haven’t. At least in no different way to how they have affected your life.
I wasn’t planning on talking about the rioting for my blog because we have been so removed from it, but then it occurred to me: why is that the case? We’re only a couple of hours from Atlanta, Georgia, where protests continue, the recent shooting and funeral of Rayshard Brooks fuelling the ongoing battle against racial discrimination and the militaristic actions of American police. However, the ‘wave of discontent’ across America, as discussed in the UK papers, doesn’t seem to have reached us. We are travelling in the Southern states of America – somewhere I have always considered to be the heartland of racial disparities – so is it as it often seems to us: that no one is talking about race?
Acknowledging the past
When we first started our travels, I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is a long letter from the author to his son about life as a black American. It talks of the disconnect between white and black Americans that was triggered by slavery and why it is such a hard issue for Americans to face.
America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians and other enemies of civilisation. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Discussing racism in America takes you back to a sour point in its history. Regardless of their country’s policies on human rights and individual freedom, there once was a time when millions of Americans supported the idea that black or brown skinned people were a different race to white people and that they were not equal.
Now the protests are calling on all of us to recognise this oppression and take action. So after spending time on the Homestead, where we engaged in debate about Nationwide issues frequently, it has come as a shock that we haven’t heard or seen more support on our travels?
Location – our Skoolie life in America
Over the last month or so we have travelled through Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina. Our route has followed the formula of much of our trip – every few days we pack up and trundle along quiet roads, drifting through sleepy backwater towns before stopping at another beautiful rural spot to set up camp. We tend to alternate between State Park campgrounds, where we hike and bike (and take decent showers!), and at local Harvest Hosts, where we stay for free in exchange for purchasing the wares on offer by the local farm, winery or brewery that is hosting us.
We meet and chat to people on our rural road-trip all the time. In the campgrounds people tend to stop to compliment us on the bus and when they hear we are British they want to hear our story and talk about travel. They want to welcome us to America and ensure we see the best of it.
With the owners of farms, breweries and wineries, our conversations go a little deeper. We often find ourselves talking about the reasons behind choosing to grow and sell produce, which in turn often leads to conversations about the provenance of food in the United States and a fear about what is going into what they eat. More recently, discussions have focused on the challenges they are facing with Coronavirus – a mix between struggling to survive the tourism collapse or coping with the increased demand for their local produce.
The fact race has not cropped up in our conversation is not necessarily surprising. We don’t talk about it because we are talking about other things that are more relevant to the situation we are in. Life in the country is very different to the cities and RV life is different again. The one thing they seem to have in common though is that they are both very white.
We don’t see black and brown people when we travel in our Skoolie to campsites and farms because that’s not where they are. According to the RV Industry Association, a million Americans live full-time in RVs, many of whom are Snowbirds – white retirees – that follow the sun in enormous fifth wheel trailers. Roughly 40 million also go RV camping but, although growing, the number of ethnic minorities heading out to the campgrounds is still very low – just 9% of those camping households. NAARVA, the National African American RVers Association only has 1,500 members – that is vastly different to the big RV travel website that has hundreds of thousands.
So where are all the black and brown campers? Various forums give a quick indication of the problems and it largely comes down to economics and opportunities. It’s difficult to travel in America if you don’t have a car – public transport options are terrible and the Parks themselves are often miles away from anywhere’. It’s also tricky to go camping if you have no experience of how to do it – no childhood full of camping holidays to refer to or garage full of camping kit to use. Perhaps the biggest turn off though is holidaying in an almost entirely white world. Times are changing but it is still a discomforting idea for many, particularly when stories abound on the forums about racial discrimination.
I remember pulling in a gas station in Georgia to fill up, and while doing so, I was approached by two gentlemen asking questions about how could I afford such a rig when they couldn’t. I thought, wow! I’d better hurry this up and leave because these guys were up to no good. Did not finish filling up because the questions were steady coming from these guys, so we left. Further down the road, we were pulled over by a state trooper, detaining us for one hour giving me demands for a search of our rv. I informed him I will not let that happen without a search warrant. He let us go. Though I let my guard down by stopping at that place to get gas.
Forum comment by ‘Woody’ a black RV’er talking about his experiences in 1985 on RVtravel.com
A different story in the city
It was only when we were forced to take a detour into Asheville, North Carolina to get our brakes checked after they started smoking on our way out of the Smokies (we had flashbacks of Yosemite and a $1000 garage bill, but thankfully they were fine), that we realised that things were different in the cities.
Our trip to Asheville coincided with Guy’s birthday so we decided to rough it for the night at Cracker Barrel (another place that offers free parking for RV’s) and go into downtown for beers. We found a city-wide campaign of artwork and watched both white and black protesters gather with signs. Shortly after we stopped in Greenville, South Carolina, and came across a BLM concert in the park. People of all colours showing their support for the campaign to end racism.
Seeing a positive response in the cities was reassuring but it still surprises me that we have not seen anything outside of the city centres, no rural activism. The only campaign signs we have seen are for local sheriffs, politicians, lawyers or to keep Trump. It feels as if there is a disconnect and when we started to discuss it, we realised that the divide covers more than just rural / urban, it is also between each State.
50 countries of America
Before we travelled here I always pictured America as one big, powerful, unified country – go Team America! In truth it feels like 50 different countries controlled by 50 different Governors.
The U.S is huge and it stands to reason that different areas are going to have different focal points. In our travels we found the people of Montana campaigning for better services when they are left stranded by brutal winters. In California, the battle was waged against the energy companies, whose state-wide shutdown of the electrical lines during the fires caused weeks of blackouts (they feared being sued if high winds took down power lines and triggered more fires). In New Mexico, the border patrols and increased police presence suggested the focus was on drugs and people coming in from the cartels and mountains areas across the Mexican border. The list goes on.
The problem is that when it comes to an issue like racial disparity, the separation of the States could make it easy to dismiss the issue as something relevant only to the South. As Ta-Nehisi Coates suggested, it’s hard for white Americans to recognise the damage that was caused by slavery and to accept that the whole country needs to change. When something is difficult to accept, it is often easier to blame someone else or ignore it completely. We saw evidence of this in Louisiana – there is only one Plantation on the Mississippi River, the Whitney, that focuses on the story of slavery. Every other big house invites it’s visitors to remember that period as a time of Southern grandeur. Read more about that in our Lessons in Louisiana blog.
It takes great effort to bring all the States together as a Nation when crisis hits, to combine the differences between rural and urban communities and to recognise minority groups within the melting pot of cultures that sit within this enormous country – and the man at the helm is the President.
America = the (un) United States
Recently a British friend, a director at a social media agency, put together an infographic about the ‘stories of solidarity’ from the Covid lockdown in the UK. It included the Major who walked around his garden to raise money, the baked potato song, the clapping for the NHS etc. He wanted to do one about America and asked us for feedback on the nationwide stories that were bringing America together in the fight against Covid. The responses rolled in: ‘Solidarity? Not here!’.
I asked my friend Adena to explain,
We are a divided nation, being egged on to make hurtful, hateful choices, to bicker, and attack each other, to claim the non-altruistic motto of ‘America first’, to be racist and classist – to lie to ourselves and others to get capitalism done”.
Adena went on to clarify that Coronavirus-inspired good stuff is happening, just locally in communities and families. It’s kept quiet – people don’t like to be seen as in need of charity. In her opinion, this comes down to an American culture trait of shaming. You are made to feel ashamed that you made a bad decision – spending your money instead of putting it away for your family. You keep it quiet.
The fear of being shamed may or not may not be an American trait, it’s not something we have witnessed in the people we have met, but I can definitely attest to seeing one person act it out publicly: Trump.
Throughout Coronavirus the President has continued to shame anyone he possibly can in a bid to show that someone else is responsible for America’s failure to manage the virus. This started off being other countries fault, but when was forced to look within his own country, it quickly moved on to his Governors who were pitted against each other in the blame race. Now he is using his ‘special way with words’ to explain what he believes is happening with racism in America and those divisive words are reaching people in every living room across the country.
The truth is out there… Or it isn’t
According to our Homestead friends, the best way to find out the news and take stock of a developing situation is take a cross section of NPR (national public radio), CNN and BBC news. Of course that relies on you wanting to find a neutral, unbiased view. Many people just watch one news channel and take what they hear as the truth, and with Trump dominating the National news and channels offering stories with a clear political leaning, it is no wonder there is confusion, paranoia and distrust.
A case in point is Trumps recent tear-gassing of peaceful protesters in Washington so that he could have a photoshoot with his Bible in front of a church. Fox News, known for it’s partisan reporting, covered the story but the headlines leaned toward Trump’s narrative – that the protesters became combative, that weapons were later found at the scene, that rioters attempted to burn down one of the nation’s most historic churches and that tear gas was not used, it was just a pepper spray.
The paranoia about ‘fake news’ is not even quashed by hearing from those involved. A post circulated on Facebook written by the church rector on Facebook. It told of a peaceful event in which she had been handing out water alongside her colleague, a nurse. She was therefore ‘deeply offended’ when police in riot gear turned up and threw tear gas and concussion grenades to move the protesters on; Trump may well have walked over their medical and water supplies on the way to his photo-shoot. The majority of comments below showed support for the rector and many shared the post, but one angry voice spoke out: how did we know that was the rector? And how could we be sure that was true if we didn’t see it with our own eyes?
Thankfully, not everyone chalked it up to fake news. Several high ranking officials spoke out against Trump’s divisive actions and media outbursts. Even his own former Defence Secretary condemned him.
Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try…
Former Defense Secretary, James Martin
How can America change the way it thinks about race when it’s own President appears to advocate violence against protesters? How can it feel connected to society’s problems when television is happy to bend the truth in order to keep on his good side? How do they know what to believe when they are repeatedly told about ‘fake news’.
America, it seems, will remain a divided nation if we leave it to the man in charge.
But… we don’t have to leave it to the man in charge
Thankfully not everybody is following Trump’s example. Even though we have seen or heard little of the race riots on the streets of rural America, it has been rewarding to see the protests have kick-started discussion in the cities and, in some cases, organisations that function across States. The U.S Marine Corps are making it policy to stop the use of the Confederate flag and several monuments of Civil war heroes have been moved to museums by officials who agree that their central location sends the wrong message (well apart from Trump who wants a toppled one in Washington restored). There is also talk of defunding the police and investing some of their budget into social change.
Community development helps people make changes in their own lives and communities through the provision of education, counselling, skills-sharing and youth services. It gives back power instead of taking it away. For Ta-Nahesi Coates that must feel like a dream – he talks about growing up powerless, living in fear of the militarised city police, and the sadness he feels that this is the America his son will grown up in. Perhaps if defunding happens now, his son’s generation will not experience that same fear.
Speaking out and listening in
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
Emily Beatrice Hall talking of Voltaire’s belief and often quoted when talking about freedom of speech
I recently read an exchange on social media between an American ex-police officer and his teacher friend. The ex-officer felt sorry for his friends in the force – the stores were being looted in the protests, a crime, and he felt that people weren’t seeing the hard work the cops were doing to keep the peace. Instead, activists were just using the shooting to gain traction for their campaign, glamourising the victims, ignoring the fact actual law-breaking went on and making the police look bad. It could have been any person of any colour out there and the result would have been the same, it was just one bad cop who made the wrong decision.
The teacher explained that bad cop or not, the stats show that it is a fact that black people are more regularly stopped and are more likely to be killed by police. It is also a fact that disadvantaged communities have an increased tendency to commit crime. The system is broken.
The exchange made me happy because it was a debate – it wasn’t just one person shouting at the other and calling them a racist. It was one person educating another person.
Continuing the debate
The BLM campaign is clear. As a white person I can never truly know what it is like to be black or brown. And whilst it may be uncomfortable to hear that I am part of the white society that has oppressed their lives, I have to accept this is true. It’s not enough to just say ‘I’m not a racist’ and continue on as before, or kid myself that as long as I treat everybody equally, the problem will just fade away. By doing nothing, I am turning a blind eye on what is happening.
I can’t assume that people around me on my travels through Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina are not talking about race but I do know that they are not talking about it to me. Whether that is due to a feeling of disconnection from the problem because of where they live, because they have other things they believe to be more relevant, because they are ashamed of the truth or because the media and Trump has distanced them from the voices of black and brown people, is not for me to say. But if I think talking about it is important, as I do, then I should practice what I preach and keep the discussion alive where I can. Keep applauding the successes as well as sharing the sadness of the fight for racial equality so that the world becomes more aware. And that is why I have written this blog. #BLM
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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???“
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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”!
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
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.
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.
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.
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 and Mississippi, 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.
There were many lessons to be learnt on our journey through the first States of the Deep South – not everything was as it seemed and we were surprised at every turn.
When it comes to State Parks, don’t make presumptions
The closer we get to the east, the harder it seems to be to find cheap or free blm campsites. I am sure they exist but not with the prevalence of Montana or California. The answer to our problem: State Parks.
State Parks are like the little brother of National Parks. Like all younger siblings there is an element of copying – they have the same focus on nature, conservation and education – but unlike their big brother, they keep a much more local focus. They also offer some of the most economical ways to camp around the U.S, offering big sites with shower and dump facilities in some of the most wonderful environments the State can offer.
Each state is different; Texas offered free fishing, Montana offered ultimate wilderness and Oregon offered exceptional beach access. We weren’t expecting Louisiana’s to be anything special – they are not a rich State – but we were wrong! Alongside the bayous full of alligators (don’t swim here folks!), they offered free laundry and waterparks and fire pits. That makes for a very happy family!
There is no such thing as slavery?!
Did you know that more slaves ended up in Brazil than in America? It was a new fact to me. It was one that Louisiana wanted to point out though – perhaps because they wanted to deflect from the awful struggle that has been so well documented of the plight of American slaves on the Louisiana plantations.
Visiting a plantation had been high on my agenda. I wanted to explain what had happened to the kids and also learn more about how America had learnt from her past and what she was doing to change her future. You can imagine my surprise when, on asking my Texan friend which plantation to visit, her response was to “skip the plantations” altogether.
It turns out the Louisiana story is crafted more around southern glamour Think big hoop skirts and mint juleps in beautifully manicured tea gardens. Slaves are not entirely forgotten – our Texan friends said they had seen a plaque at the plantation they visited that ‘thanked the Africans that came to help set up the plantation’. Hmmmm.
I found a National Geographic article about a different plantation – the Whitney – that focuses entirely on the slave experience. The write-up suggested all Americans should go and visit this ‘hard-hitting’ and ‘truthful‘ museum. It sounded more like what I was after and so we chose to go there instead. It was a much more realistic portrait. Very little of the tour is spent in the big house – most of it is split between the memorials for the slaves and the slaves quarters. The tour guide brought home the horrors of working in the field with water snakes, alligators and sharp cane. He showed us the sugar cane warehouses where cane was ground up and repeatedly boiled in increasingly smaller bowls, leading to perils such as spitting sugar that would weld to the skin or loss of limb in a grinder. Needless to say, the idea of someone’s job being to stand with an axe next to the grinder in case someone got a hand caught (it was better to chop a hand off than have a whole arm mangled) was the takeaway for the boys.
It was moving and saddening to hear about the Whitney slaves but it wasn’t anything new. Perhaps the greater lesson for me was the fact that Americans seem not quite ready to fully face up to their murky past and the role they played in shaping the racial divide across the Nation. Why hide the most moving exhibit of the 45 beheaded slaves from view? It should be seen because it really happened.
At the time of the National Geographic article (2016) the Whitney was the only museum dedicated to slavery in the U.S. The only one! I guess slavery so wholly goes against the ideals of ‘freedom, equality and justice‘, it’s just too big a pill to swallow. The one saving grace is that The Whitney tours have been so popular that the surrounding plantations have started to include ‘slavery tours’ as part of their larger offering to the public. It may not be the perfect way to approach the subject but at least it is included.
Not all museums are equal
Back in Idaho we made a hilarious trip to the Potato Museum and we use this as our benchmark for all museums. Was it as engaging as the Potato Exhibit? Did they have as much variety (ha ha) in their offering?
Well I can report that the International Petroleum Museum in Louisiana is high on the potatometer. It looked good – we could stay for free on the land if we took the 90 minute tour around the oil rig, which showcased submarines and drills and all sorts of boy’s toys. As our mumbling guide droned on about pipe diameters in a hot, sticky, airless cafeteria, answering every question with a “well I don’t know for sure about that...” , we wished we had chosen to pay for a State Park. How disappointing.
Then, to top it off, we stepped out of inner rooms on the oil rig and I trod in a cat poo. Excellent. “Ah, yeah” said our petrol man, “I hate that cat. They keep it to get rid of all the rats up here”. Double excellent.
Mardi Gras is not all boobs on Bourbon Street
I was so excited about New Orleans – it was one of the only dates we had set in our diary. We HAD to be there for Mardi Gras because that is something that has always been on my bucket list.
The closer we got the New Orleans, the more precarious our plan felt. People kept telling us how dangerous New Orleans was – particularly at Mardi gras. “make sure you lock up your Skoolie”, “be careful going out at night”, “don’t take out your valuables”, “don’t take the kids to Bourbon Street” and such like. Could it be that bad?
From the minute we arrived, staying at the wonderful Jude Travel Park which offered us a cheap transfer into the city, we found New Orleans to be a delight. Hands down, it’s the best city we have visited on our tour of the U.S. Don’t be put off people!
We arrived on the weekend before the big Mardi Gras events but there were still parades on everyday. We watched several from the Garden District which was a great family friendly alternative to Bourbon Street. The boys went wild for the freebies thrown out by the floats and Auntie Lou-Lou was declared Queen of the Freebies when she showcased her haul at the end of the day.
We didn’t avoid the infamous French Quarter completely – why would you? True, it can get a bit risque but as long as you don’t go too late then we found it to be OK. We stopped to watch music on corners and collect beads thrown from balconies above. The boys barely raised an eyebrow at the topless women selling nipple glitter – there was too much other stuff to look at. The worst of it was the number of amazing looking jazz bars that we just couldn’t go inside. When you live in a Skoolie and feel a bit nightlife-deprived, going to New Orleans with two under 21 tag-a-longs during Mardi Gras is just a tad frustrating!
There is more to the flying of the Confederate flag than meets the eye… or is there?
The information our favourite travelling family shared with us about the plantations was part of a bigger conversation about where to stop in the South. They had little advice because they hadn’t really found anywhere to recommend – southern hospitality? More like southern animosity…
“we couldn’t get used to the confederate flags in Mississippi and Alabama. You are white so you will be fine. We are brown so I’m more tuned in to white nationalist folks and their weird gatherings. They won’t mess with you.”
True to their word, the minute we crossed the border into Mississippi we started to see more and more Confederate flags. Why fly a flag for a battle that ended in 1865? Surely it couldn’t be allowed if it was just a racist statement. Or could it?
First a bit of history…
The Confederate flag is the flag of the southern army that fought in the Civil War, a conflict in which somewhere between 620,000 to 750,000 people lost their lives – more than the number of U.S. military deaths in all other wars combined. The Confederate army suffered the bulk of those deaths. They lost the battle and were denied what they felt was their right – to secede and to keep slavery. With the rules imposed on the south, coupled with battle losses, the southern states lost everything. Mississippi, for example, went from being one of the richest states to one of the poorest.
It may have been been in the 1860’s but the fight of the Confederates has been romanticised somewhat. The Guardian spoke to flag flyers who claim it has nothing to do with slavery and racism anymore, it is about historic pride and ongoing oppression of the South by the North.
Of course to most black people this is all it stands for. The war’s key issue was slavery and the Confederates wanted to keep it going. Over the years it has become the emblem of pro-white rallies – even the Ku Klux Klan flew it.
I can understand the need to remember the past but you also need to recognise how that past affects the future.
As we left New Orleans, we drove through a smaller Mardi Gras parade in Bay St Louis, Mississippi. Confederate flags flew in the crowd and on the floats. I read in the paper afterwards that a 12 year-old black girl had been beckoned over to one float – usually this means there is a gift to be thrown out – and the white man gave her a ‘mammy doll’ with a noose around it’s neck, telling her that this would be her when she grew up. The float organisers distanced themselves from it saying that it went against their policies and so forth but it’s hard to read this and then have sympathy for White Americans as the oppressed party.
Southern food comes sweet and salty
We were excited about the food in the south. Gumbo and boiled crayfish, red beans and rice… it all sounded yum.
Some of it was. If ever you are in New Orleans, make some time for beignets and coffee (ask for it strong – we are yet to get a good cup in the U.S). The fresh doughnuts are served warm and covered in icing sugar. They melt in the mouth. Watch your kids though – There must have been a bag of sugar emptied on each basket and Soren practically had his face in it!
If you are ever in Bay St Louis, not only should you avoid their Mardi gras parade, stay well clear of Cuz’s gumbo. Wikipedia describes a good gumbo as “consist(ing) primarily of a strongly-flavored stock, meat or shellfish, a thickener, and what Louisianians call the “Holy Trinity” of vegetables, namely celery, bell peppers, and onions. At Cuz’s you can remove the meat, shellfish and vegetables and replace them with salt, salt and more salt. Take your rumbling tummy to Rita Mae’s in Morgan City where the home-cooked shrimp lafayette was infused with spices and a love of the good in life.
Alabama didn’t make the cut
I feel it was something of a sham to put our Alabama sticker on our travel map because we didn’t even set foot in the state. We were on a tight schedule to get Louise to Orlando and so we literally drove straight across it and out the other side. Sorry Alabama. We hear you have a good warship museum in Mobile but frankly it was a little too expensive for us to justify stopping.
Good kids can go bad
I have mentioned homeschooling before, when we were just starting to knuckle down and focus on how best to teach the kids whilst on the road. We found our way. As we weaved our way down the Washington coast it all came together – literacy and maths, half an hour (ish) each a day plus whatever learning came along in the form of excursions, National Park workbooks etc.
As we moved through the year and we got to the real meat of the curriculum, we hit the learning wall. Although our youngest had no trouble, it became tougher and tougher for our 9-year-old to keep focused. Our short and snappy lessons were met with a blank and sleepy-looking face. If children are like sponges then he was one in which absorption was at full capacity – no more was getting in and a fair amount seemed to be leaking out in the form of tears because he “hated learning in the bus”, “couldn’t concentrate in America” and ultimately “wanted to be back at school in England”.
It’s hard to play the role of teacher when you are not one. It’s endlessly frustrating to see your child give up when you know they are capable. It’s hard not to end up shouting, which we have done because it’s become such a massive, head-bang against the wall, time-sucking, mood-hoover of a challenge for all of us. We try to be patient and to go at his speed but there has to be a balance – if we want him to go back into school then there are certain number of things he has to learn.
I’d love to tell you that we found the answer in the Louisiana lessons, and in some areas we have, but overall it’s a work in progress. Suffice to say homeschooling is not the breeze we had envisaged! Maybe at 9 going on 10, concentrating is just impossible and learning is evil. Maybe, and I think this is most likely, he thinks it will all be a waste of time as his Hogwarts letter will surely be arriving soon…
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?
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.
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 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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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”.
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
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.
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!”.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!