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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

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!