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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

The end of the adventure – UK2USA becomes USA2UK

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

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

Skoolie at sunset
The sun sets on our Skoolie adventure

Returning home

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

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

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

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

Quarantine and the reintroduction to reality

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

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

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

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

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

Travelling in your forties

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

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

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

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

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

Taking a gamble

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

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

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

When we arrived in the U.S the challenges continued. It’s pretty scary hitting the road in a 38ft, 14 tonne vehicle. You have to have a special HGV license to drive something of that size in the UK. In America, once the bus is registered as a personal vehicle, you can drive it with your standard license and so we were able to just pick it up and go. We had a brief practice in a car park and watched a few YouTube videos (I kid you not!) about ‘squaring corners’ in a bus, and headed out into urban Salt Lake City. It was a huge test of nerves but this trip was always designed to push us out of our comfort zone.

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

An education

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why did we sell the bus?

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

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

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

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

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

A ‘cost neutral’ year

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

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

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

The next chapter

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

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

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Lessons in Louisiana and Mississippi

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 = power = margaritas and movies in bed!

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.

Palmetto Island was the boys favourite – here they are plotting the best way to photograph armadillos on the way to the splash park. Unfortunately the plans failed, hence this photo!

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.

The slaves quarters at Whitney plantation. The bowls are for boiling sugar cane.

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.

A project was undertaken to talk to people who lived through slavery – most of who were children at the time. The Whitney commissioned an artist to make statues of those children and it was a moving tribute.

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.

One of the exhibits memorialises 45 slaves from the area that tried to escape in 1811. They were caught and tried: guilty. Their heads were placed on poles as a deterrent. This photo is from visitnopc.com as unfortunately the exhibit is hidden and we didn’t realise it was there until we read about it later

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?

We find ourselves in the strangest parking spots!

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

The lights of Bourbon Street – the hub of the French Quarter

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?

Music and colour on every corner

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!

Lovely coffee shops with lovely aunty Lou Lou

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?

A common sight – US flag, Confederate flag and a Trump Pence placard.

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 army, from the Southern states, fought a bloody battle in 1861-65 against the Unionists, the Northern States, largely over slavery

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.

Give me the sugar!!!!!

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

Sorry, we drove through and got to Florida by sunset

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.

Science lessons with Soz and literacy with Kit. Both embracing the wizard theme!

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”.

Lessons are rarely half hour…. Not because Guy is sidetracked or anything…

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.

School in a school bus is not as easy as we thought

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…

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Happy Campers

Everyone (mostly!) agrees that camping is fun. Roughing it with your family and your pals, sunkissed and merry on whatever tipple is being passed around, cursory barbecued dinners and endless bags of the kind of bad-for-you snacks you’d never normally purchase at home. Somehow, the bonfire’s dancing light makes everything magical and you no longer care about the rules – who gives a crap if the kids turn feral and don’t go to bed until midnight? Nobody cares if you can’t sing in tune – there is a guitar and someone said singalong!

At some point, usually part way through day 2 of your camping weekend, the slightly grimy feeling suddenly gets unbearable. The bonfire-smoked outfit starts to feel itchy and the idea of another marshmallow makes your teeth hurt. It’s not long until all you can think of is heading home for a a soak in the tub and a cup of tea (from a kettle that boils in 30 seconds rather than 30 minutes), putting the kids to bed (on time) and going into another room several shut doors away from them.

Messy skoolie
It’s hard to keep a small space tidy when you live with 3 boys!

We are 3 weeks in now – has the day 2 feeling hit?

RV Camping in Style

I’m doing my best to make sure that since arriving in America, living outdoors stays enjoyable. We’re not in some poky little tent with a coolbox full of melted ice and soggy packets of bacon. We have a 37ft long bus with a hot shower, toilet and a fridge freezer. We are hardly roughing it; as I type this the kids are watching a movie in the bedroom (powered by solar), Guy is cooking in the kitchen on a 4-burner propane gas oven and I’m in the living area on my sofa drinking a cold wine from our full-size fridge freezer!

Watching movies
Anyone for Harry Potter Chamber of Secrets (for the tenth time??!!)

Our 37ft skoolie sounds huge but it isn’t. Well not in comparison to everybody else’s vehicles. In the two weeks we have been here, we have seen more than one 40ft motorhome, often towing a car, and a plethora of gigantic trailers (caravans) attached to huge, 6-seater pick-ups. And it doesn’t stop there – they roll up to their site for the night and crank open the slide-outs; weird little boxes that emerge from the side of their RV like some kind of growth. I assume they are making space for their gigantic beds, everything is of course bigger over here, or perhaps even a dog walking area. Americans seem to have dogs but we haven’t really seen anyone walking with one.

So the inside of our camping experience is cushty, but what about the outside?

Home-from-home; camping in America

On the road camping in a skoolie
On the road – hitting Grand Teton National Park, part of an endless caravan of massive rv’s.

We chose a destination that is set up for and relishes road-trips. America is a nation of campers and the roads seem built to accommodate their need to roam. In the UK, if the journey is longer than a couple of hours we start to wonder whether it is worth the effort. Three or four hours and we have to wait for a bank holiday weekend so there is time to ‘recover from the journey’. In Yellowstone we met campers who had travelled 10 hours in their truck to camp for the weekend – and they even brought kids. I’m yet to discover what the American version of calpol is but I’m guessing they look at it in the same way as sugar and salt for kids over here: bigger portions = happier families. Either that or their weekends are longer.

Once you have tugged your weighty rig into its new resting place, you can continue the home-from-home experience. Campsites have everything a travelling family might need – plug in electricity and water, waste dumps, play areas, laundry, little shops… just plug in and unleash the marshmallows.

Of course you pay for the pleasure of a temporary piece of land to call your own – we’ve seen sites ranging from $30 to $80 per night. If you are on the road for a long time though, as many people appear to be, you can show allegiance to a particular chain and sign up to get a discount. The Thousand Trails Pass, for instance, costs $585 for 5 zones. Add additional zones for just $54 and this allows you to stay in their sites for free for a year. Coast to Coast do something similar as I’m sure do others. If $800 sounds like a lot (yep!), you can sell your membership to someone else when you leave, which helps recoup some of the outlay. Alternatively, other skoolies have recommended KOA (campsites of America) as a budget option – you sign up for their card and get a small discount off each stay.

The hills are alive with the sound of … generators

Roof top view from camping in Tetons
Room with a view. A magical backdrop courtesy of the National Forest land surrounding the Tetons – a beauty when the sun went down.

We budgeted for campsites with all the amenities but within days we realised that the kind of camping was not the kind of camping we liked. The sites are big and a bit impersonal – they look at bit too much like car parks with a bit of nice landscaping. Even if the site does not have power – in some of the parks you have to make do with what the State provides – it seems to be the norm to park up and whack on a massive great generator. It’s so noisy and anti-social!

We’ve actually got a generator – Oquirrh believed that we could not live without aircon and that we would have to have a generator to power it if we were intent on camping off-grid, so we took their advice and used all of our contigency funds on something that weighs 16 stone, sounds like a massive lawnmower parked right outside our door and takes up a huge chunk of our storage space. Needless to say we haven’t used it once. To solve the need for cooler air we just left Utah and travelled north up the Rockies where the mountain air provides the evening chill! I guess we need to get on and sell that generator… anyone interested (after I’ve sold it so well!!)

RV budget camping in America

If you don’t mind missing out on the serviced shower blocks and restaurants, National Forests and BLM land are full of great sites that do not require booking and are usually close to all the places that you want to go. Some of these sites have rangers or on-site managers, invariably retirees called Buck or Bud or Wade, who live in their own RV and just occassionally come out to drive around in a golf buggy to ‘check y’all are ok?’. They cost about $15 to $25 and they have long-drop toilets and water.

The state camping sites are lovely and you are more likely to find people properly camping in tents or little trailers, enjoying the great outdoors. People are incredibly friendly and accommodating – thoroughly interested in our journey and the experience. Most of them love the bus. All of them love the fact we are English as it gives them licence to tell us about their great, great, great whatever who came from Lancashire or their undisputed link to the Saxons.

Dispersed camping

Dispersed camping in Wyoming
Oh hello, I am completely free and totally gorgeous – come and camp in your skoolie Chimps…ok!

If you don’t want to spend any money on accommodation at all, that is possible in America. If you don’t mind driving a little further down the track into the National Forests or to reach BLM land, there are free places to camp – ‘dispersed sites’ (not ‘depressed’ as one person with some helpful advice for us remembered them!). These are rarely more than just a space to camp, so you need to be self-sufficient, but if all you want is a parking spot and nature, you are on to a winner. They are not even that far from the action; we visited Grand Teton NP and Yellowstone in high summer and stayed in neighbouring forest land for free most nights. It took us just 20 minutes to bump our way back down the track and get back into the park.

You can find all the cheap / free campsites by searching on Campendium or Wikicamps. We love the dispersed sites, not just because of the price tag (or lack of), but because they are always a surprise. You read the briefest of details about them and then throw the dice – most of them involve a tense journey up an unpaved road. Will the bus do it? Will we be able to turn around? Are we going to fall off the edge of a cliff?! Then you round the corner and discover the most incredible view, the money shot. It adds a whole new dimension to the experience; we had a view over Grand Teton at sunset from our roofdeck (celebratory beer) that was better than any paid-for boat-trip or mass-attended boardwalk hike. It was awe-inspiring.

Boondocking

Slightly blurry… too much potato vodka with other travellers at the Grand Teton Distillery

There are other ways to keep it cheap and meet nice people. Before we came out, we’d heard that boondocking was an option – free camping, not on campsites. From what we could gather, there were various truck stops and Walmarts that let you crash in their parking lot. All that is good, and we have made use of them, but we’ve also signed up with a couple of boondocking sites. Boondockers Welcome costs about $30 and puts you in touch with locals that are happy for you to park up on their land. This may be farms or even larger properties. We are yet to try it out but we have heard good things.

We’ve also signed up to Harvest Hosts. This was a bit more expensive – about $70 – but it gives you details of wineries, breweries etc that are happy for you to visits and stay. Its proper to buy a bottle or do the tour, but you benefit from that anyway. We had a lovely stay at Grand Teton Distillery and were very happy with our potato vodka! You can also pay to upgrade and stay at golf clubs – some of which require you to actually play a round but many of which are just in lovely locations. It was on offer the day we signed up so we took the plunge. It looks as if Montana has several, so we’ll do our best to get around as many as we can!

This blog has some good explanations on boondocking that include dispersed camping options.

Camping with real Americans

Soren has a lesson in the mighty moose from Ron Swanson counterpart from Eagleton – Ron Dunn (look him up if you are not a Parks and Rec fan!)

We’ve also met some fascinating people in the free sites. There was a great volunteer ranger at one of our first free sites – Dan Harris (American’s always introduce themselves with both first and surname). He told us in his thick Utah accent , grey ponytail swinging, that we had met ourselves ‘a real hillbilly but not a redneck ’cause I don’t agree with Trump’.

Unlike the UK, the land belongs to the people and is just managed by the Government on their behalf. Trump wants to privatise this and Dan Harris felt it would be a loss to the people. He’s a hunter, but much of our chat was about the positive benefits of hunting to the eco-system – apparently hunting has increased the amount of wildlife in the area and, because of the cost of permits, funded improvements to the land. If the land is privatised, what will happen to it?

We showed good British interest in his stories and so he invited us to see the mounted head of the moose he’d shot in his living room. Apparently, it was quite a small moose but stuck up on the wall of a tiny living room, scattered with hunting magazines, it looked absurdly massive. On the opposite wall was an elk head, attached to a plank of wood wedged in a doorway so you couldn’t actually get through, and a deer head. There were pictures of cougars he had hunted (but deliberately not killed) and more elk. He said “elk was just about the best meat ever” and that he would have offered us some, but what he had left in his freezer was 2 years old and not as good as when it was first killed. I was pretty thankful for that. Guy was probably not! As we were leaving I spotted a gravestone on the floor – apparently it was his great-great-great grandmother’s headstone which he had salvaged from the churchyard. Yep, a true hillbilly!

RV camping with American creatures

Arrrgghhhh chipmunks…. far too much like squirrels (my nemesis)

We Brits don’t really have to worry about wildlife when we go camping. What’s the worst that could happen… a daddy-long-legs gets into your tent and casts weird leggy shadows everywhere? A dog escapes the confines of it’s leash and eats someone else’s picnic? Over here it is a bit more serious. We were merrily running around at our first camp in Utah, wading in the stream and building rafts from tall reeds, when a friendly camper came and told us she’d seen a couple of rattlesnakes in the grass so we should be careful with the kids. Oh, and we should also watch out for tics and poison ivy. Gulp!

Now we are up north in Yellowstone area, it’s less rattlesnake and more bear. I am very glad we have an indoors toilet and I don’t need to try and find the campsite one in the dead of night! Our biggest problem though is mosquitoes. We don’t have bug screens on the bus and if we camp in the woods we get them bombarding us. Tonight we are staying in the most beautiful spot in the Shoshone National Forest, a hop and skip away from the North East Yellowstone. We are near a rushing river backed by two huge, snow-capped mountains – again staying for free – but I can’t open the doors for fear of attack. I have literally been around the bus twice to wipe the blood marks from squashed mozzies off the walls. Oh the glamour of it all!

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Skoolie Stays

Our year in an American school-bus

A year in a Skoolie

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

ruth wimpory skoolie stays

By Ruth

The start of the adventure - summer 2019

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

 

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

Picking up our American school bus

We picked up our bus two days after we arrived in America.  Our builder did not send us many photos of the progress because he was so busy, so although we had seen the layout on paper and had seen some of the wooden structures for the sofa, kitchen and bunks, we had no idea what it looked like. It was so strange to step into the space and see it for real. 

Mirrors are your friend

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

It’s pretty scary hitting the road in a 38ft, 14 tonne vehicle. You have to have a special HGV license to drive something of that size in the UK but in America, once the bus is registered as a personal vehicle, you can drive it with your standard license. Taking his family out on the road was the bit that Guy was anxious about. Our builder had given him a quick lesson the day before in a parking lot – “rely on your mirrors to see where you are” –  and he’d watched a few You Tube videos (I kid you not!) about ‘squaring corners’, but that first journey was a test of his nerves. He nailed it though and we were on the road, just the 4 of us, ready to go camp America style. 

Utah, Idaho & Wyoming

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

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

 

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

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

Montana

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

 

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

Alberta & Vancouver

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Washington & Oregon

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

 

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

 

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

California

We envisaged our route through the Golden State as a string of sunny beaches and glitzy cities full of beautiful people (as well as a fair amount of  suburban sprawl and 14-lane highways!).  It ended up as a trip through towering Redwoods, autumnal vineyards, sun-scorched gold-panning towns, breath-taking National Parks and barren plains filled with spiky cactus and dust clouds. We didn’t go near the cities and we barely saw the beaches – the California fires had taken hold and we had to go inland. 

 

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

 

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

Arizona and New Mexico

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Texas

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

 

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

 

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

 

Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama

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

 

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

 

 Read more about trip in the deep south here

Florida

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

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

 

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

 

Enthuse with us over Florida at our travel blog.

Georgia

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

 

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

 

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

Tennessee North and South Carolina

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Completing our tour of America
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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

America – we have arrived

We are one week in to our year long tour of North America. In some ways it feels as if we have been here for ages. In others, as we navigate past incredulous Americans in our big yellow bus, it feels as if we are total newbies. Who cares though? We are very happy to finally be here.

We’re leaving home, bye bye

Before we could get on the plane to America we had to go through a hectic, stressful month that was filled with anxiety, tears, late night DIY sessions, hours on the computer researching insurance, many trips to the dump and the charity shop, several long and stressful what’s app / skype conversations with Oquirrh Mountain Bus (the company doing up our skoolie) tackling last minute bus issues and so many leaving drinks that our livers felt sodden. 

No matter how much you plan in advance, most of the effort for this kind of trip has to take place just before you leave. Guy became a DIY and property-management machine, working all hours to get our house ready for our tenants whilst also trying to sort out the damage and rental changeovers at our flats. My month was spent packing up our house and offloading the contents of our lives on whoever had space (good work Nicole and Ros!), getting the kids out of school and prepping Bill the campervan for his new life as a Quirky camper listing (which means you can hire him – check him out here).  

When we shut the door on our home in Hove, closing that chapter of our lives that has lasted 8.5 years, it felt very strange. The boys found it pretty sad. A year seems forever when you are 6 and 8 and after an emotional departure from school, it was no great surprise to see that moving out upset them. Even though we know they are going to have the best adventure, it’s hard to see them crying because of the enormous upheaval you have brought into their lives. 

Packing for a year in America

Things got a bit easier once we had left the house. Short of buying insurance, sorting out visas and flights, we hadn’t bothered preparing for America – the idea was that if we didn’t already own it or know about it, we could just buy it or research it when we arrived. We had 10 days before departure and so anything that might be useful was thrown in the van for sorting out at my mum’s house. Over the following 10 days we decanted, repacked, decanted, dumped stuff, repacked, weighed-in, decanted, repacked and so on.

London to America baggage
Weighed down with bags

The last time Guy and I travelled we had two rucksacks. 11 years later and with 2 boys in tow, we arrived with 4 x 23kg bags, 4 x 8kg bags and 2 car seat bags (free with most airlines). It was ridiculous that we had so much stuff to take to America and even more ridiculous that we were able to take that much luggage as our allowance. How on earth can people need that much space for a 2 week holiday?!

Getting to America

The flight to Orlando was long and dull – what flight isn’t – although we were pleasantly surprised with Thomas Cook. The seats were roomy and the snacks were plentiful. For £6 we could access the movie library so we plugged the kids in and barely heard from them for 8 hours! We arrived at what would have been a late night for them but was just lunchtime in America. The plan was to find a quiet corner in a transit lounge for them to nap for 3 hours, Orlando had other ideas. We had to pick up our luggage, deposit it again in about in a pile just before customs, then join the world’s longest customs queue to go back into the main airport where we had to check in again.

America tourist visas
Visas – about the only thing we got sorted before we left

I was anxious about our America custom’s check. We have B2 visas which allow us to stay for a maximum of a year in the US. That doesn’t mean you get a year though. We had read in a few places that you are at the mercy of the security officer on the day and when we were beckoned to move forward in the queue by the grumpiest face I’ve seen in America, I didn’t feel too confident. We asked for a year and Mr Negativity did a lot of head shaking, telling us that our visas are not valid for more than 120 days etc. Eventually he said he’d stamp 6 months and we could reapply but he didn’t think it was likely we would be approved unless we had a VERY good reason for staying. Whatever you say Monsieur Miserable – we’ll take our chances. 

Jet lag, film sets and big yellow buses

Salt Lake City orange flags to cross road
The weird world of Salt Lake City where pedestrians are so rare that you have to grab an orange flag when you cross the road so that drivers notice you.

We inadvertently kicked jet lag in the face by arriving at our hotel at 11pm, having not really slept for 24 hours. I don’t know how the boys kept in such good humour. We all passed out and actually slept a regular American night and woke up on our new time zone.

We had a day to relax in SLC before picking up the bus, so we took to the streets to explore. We made it through deserted streets to Temple Square to see the big Mormon temple, then overheated and had to retreat into the mall. I overheard someone telling their daughter that it was 100 degrees Farenheit outside, which perhaps explains why no-one was outside. It is so strange to see a backdrop of snowy mountains when the air around you is so hot you feel as if you are melting.

All we could do was escape into the aircon of the planetarium, which proved to be a great choice – there were loads of amazing, free exhibits and a movie screen that covered a domed ceiling. We watched coral reefs from recliner chairs, flying above the water and diving deep into the sea. A world very different to the dry lands of SLC outside. 

Finally, the school bus

We arranged to meet Blake from Oquirrh with our bus on day 2 of our American adventure. I felt sick to my core travelling in the taxi to his grandfather’s house. What would we do if we hated it?  Worse still, what would we do if there was no bus? Were we going to find out we had been scammed? This was one of our biggest fears – we had, after all, found someone on the internet and paid out a whole lot of money without being able to see the work in person. It is exactly what people always say you shouldn’t do. Anxiety levels were high.

Of course it wasn’t completely foolhardy. We had done all of our due diligence.  

  • Oquirrh were new but the business was registered.
  • Blake was happy for us to rewrite the contract and to get the liability insurance we requested.
  • We spoke to another customer for a reference and she could not have been more positive 
  • Our friends Pip and Ade met him (and the bus) whilst travelling through SLC some months ago and gave both the thumbs up. 
  • The final lump-sum payment was to be made after we had seen the bus.
  • Overall, Blake and Katie came across as trustworthy, good people and sometimes you have to go with your gut instincts about a person. We liked Blake. 

Honk Honk – there is the bus!

We pulled up in our Uber and saw the bus from the road – we recognised the roof deck. What a relief. Blake then appeared, smiling, to welcome us to our new home. More relief!

We literally couldn’t wait to get inside. Blake did not send us many photos of the progress because he was so busy, so although we had seen the layout on paper and had seen some of the wooden structures for the sofa, kitchen and bunks, we had no idea what it looked like. It was so strange to step into the space and see it for real. 

Skoolie interior
Stylish inside and out

A tour of the inside

Soren made a video tour of the bus!

The floor is dark wood and the walls and ceiling are white. The ceiling has been lined with length-way planks, which stretch the space, it looks amazing. As you step past the driving seat, there is a big u-shaped sofa and a large dining table – plenty of room for dining and working. The kitchen has white cabinets with a gorgeous dark wood butcher block on top that matches the floor. The fridge has plenty of space (such a luxury to camp and have a good fridge) and we even have a full size cooker. Oh lordy, does that mean I have to cook? 

Behind the kitchen area is the boys space, toilet and shower. We’d hoped that the bunks would be roomy enough for them to store their toys and to sit and read etc, but although super comfy to sleep in (and Kit’s favourite part of the bus), it’s a bit too coffin-like to hang out in. Luckily though,  there is a reading nook opposite their bed. We’d wondered if that was wasted space when Blake suggested it, but he was totally right. It’s a great little space for two boys who like to snuggle up on cushions to read. Even better, it keeps them and their dusty bodies off our bed. 

The shower is roomy and works well. We have hot water (propane heater) and there is good pressure. This was important to me – we plan to stay off-grid most of the time and I can only rough it long-term if there is an option of a proper shower. Of course it only works if we actually have water. Even though we have a 100 gallon fresh water tank, we need to check the levels in this heat – I learnt that lesson whilst we were at a remote campground in Utah where water was not available. It was so hot we had to preserve what was left of the tank and I had to stick my head in a stream to wash my hair – more ice-cream headache than Badedas moment.

Washing hair in a waterfall in America
It was freeeeeeeeezing!

The other necessity is a working toilet. We went for a Nature’s Head – well known by the skoolie community – a compost toilet. That sounds gross but it is the best option for a bus as it reduces the amount of waste water you accumulate and removes the need for chemicals. It doesn’t smell at all because the system has a filter that separates liquids from solids. The latter go into an area filled with peat moss and it can take about 90 ‘deposits’ before you need to change it, you just have to rotate it with a wheel on the side. It doesn’t smell at all. The liquids go into a bottle that you empty out in the toilet, or even as fertiliser. When we met with our headteacher at the school he suggested we incorporate everyday activities into our maths learning and so Guy is planning a question relating to the gallons of piss he will have emptied by the end of a year living in a bus… it’s pretty high (and pretty gross!).

legs on a bed in a skoolie
People always post pictures of their bronzed legs, draped over a beautifully made skoolie bed with a jaw-dropping view in the background. Well here is one of my dusty thighs and crusty feet. Ooooh the glamour!

At the back is our bed – a proper king size (or queen as they call it here). Blake installed a T.V here so that we can watch movies in the bedroom. There is also a roof hatch that we can climb up to enjoy the world’s best roof deck. It is lush up there – perfect for a sundowner (or a game of chequers if you are a 6 year old!). This was Guy’s long-awaited dream and it is both his and Soren’s favourite spot on the bus. 

Mirrors are your friend

It’s pretty scary hitting the road in a 38ft, 14 tonne vehicle. You have to have a special HGV license to drive something of that size in the UK but in America, once the bus is registered as a personal vehicle, you can drive it with your standard license. Taking his family out on the road was the bit that Guy was anxious about. Blake had given him a quick lesson the day before in a parking lot – “rely on your mirrors to see where you are” –  and he’d watched a few youtube videos (I kid you not!) about ‘squaring corners’, but that first journey was a test of his nerves. He nailed it though and we were on the road, just the 4 of us, ready to go camp America style. More on that next time!

Categories
Skoolie Stays

How to buy and convert a US school bus from the UK

How to buy an American school bus from the UK

Whether you want to travel the States in a Skoolie or convert one in the UK – we have done the lot and have all the info to share!

ruth wimpory skoolie stays

By Ruth

Buying anything remotely is a challenge but when it comes to buying a US school bus – a vehicle you know nothing about – in a country in which you are not based, it’s an even bigger mission.

An economical purchase?

American skoolie
Our first American Skoolie - found in Idaho. We wanted a bus that could cope with the Rockies!

American school buses are comparatively cheap. Once they reach around 140,000 miles, they have to be retired. That means there are a surplus of decent buses waiting for private sale. 

 

 

A good solid bus with a decent service history was around $5k in 2018. That went up to approximately $6500 when we bought our second in 2020. Of course the pandemic had hit by then, which skewed prices, but converting school buses is becoming more popular and where there is demand, increased prices always follow. 

 

It’s worth noting that you can get them far cheaper than this (or more expensive). We were quite specific about what type of bus we wanted (a dog-nose rather than a flatnose), size (full-size rather than a shorty) and what kind of engine and transmission (an International) and also the location of our purchase (east-coast buses = rusty bottoms!).  

 

Of course you should also remember that this price tag only buys you a bus. Shipping it over to the UK, if that is your plan, costs far, far more than the bus itself. And whichever country you decide to convert it, you only need the shell of the bus and it’s engine. The cost of turning it a bus into a tiny home is where the money goes. Of course the snazzier you make it, the more it costs, but even a basic conversion requires a solid budget (with contingency!)

Finding a bus

Rusty bus
Up for a challenge?

The big problem for a UK citizen is finding your trusty steed. Buses are listed everywhere – from private sellers on craigslist to dealers to auction houses. The problem is, how do you know if you are purchasing a solid, reliable, rust-free bus? In many cases, you won’t know until you start your actual conversion, but you should do your best to check in advance. It seems a shame to waste all that money on a total rust bucket! 

 

Of course checking out buses in America is not easy. We had a friend in New York who was happy to help, but if we’d ended up purchasing from a dealer on the west coast, that would have been a good 5 – 6 hour flight for him to go and give it a once over. That’s like flying from the UK to Egypt! The only way around this is to find a local mechanic and pay them to look at the bus. Finding one can be a challenge, and mechanics are pricey, but it might be the only way you know for sure what state the bus is in. 

What are you buying a bus for?

American bus near eastbourne
Our second bus in the beautiful Sussex landscape - a long way from its American roots in Florida

Are you buying a bus to travel the States or are you thinking of bringing one back to the UK. We’ve done both. In fact we even looked at buying one, bringing it to the UK to convert and then shipping it back to travel. That probably strikes you as foolhardy, but at one point it looked like the cheapest way to do it.  

 

Let’s cover all options…

 

Bringing an American school bus to the UK

Skoolie with seats
Our second bus when it arrived

First things first. Make sure it is a regular, retired bus that you buy – not a part-converted / fully-converted Skoolie. It makes things far more straightforward when it comes to shipping and then titling in the UK. And don’t be tempted to rip out the seats etc in the U.S – it needs to look like a bus when it arrives in the UK or you get into all sorts of MOT problems. 

 

Once you have bought your bus, you will need to get on and organise shipping asap. You can’t do this in advance as you need the information on the Title Deeds of the bus for the shipping agent. The agent will require lots of information about weight, height, make etc and it has to be precise. Full-size buses are too big for containers, so you will need a RoRo ferry (roll on roll off). You pay for the space you take up and so you want to make sure you get those stats right. 

Although there were lots of forms to fill in, it was fairly straightforward. In 2020, it cost us approximately £4800 with duty (16% of the combined value and shipping costs) and VAT (20% of the combined vehicle value, shipping and duty costs) on top of that. 

 

 

Space to store a Skoolie and a TWIC to your name

Skoolie Home at the Skoolie Homestead
We had friends who could help us out

The most complicated part of the process was what happened with the bus in the window between the purchase and its scheduled arrival time at the port for shipping. It takes a while to get your slot booked for the RoRo ferry and so you need someone / somewhere to collect your bus and store it for you. You will also need someone with Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC)  to deliver your bus at an allotted, very specific, time. The TWIC is required by federal law for any workers that need access
to secure or restricted areas of maritime facilities and is administered by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the U.S. Coast Guard. 
 

 

Luckily, our year out led to us meeting amazing friends, which meant we had bus buddies who could help us out. Our bus arrived in the UK in early February 2021 and you can read more about the process of building it, here

Where to buy a bus if you want to travel the States

Skoolie.net screenshot

But what if you want to travel in America with your Skoolie like us? Your options are a bit greater:

  1. Purchase a second-hand conversion in the US that is already titled as a RV.
  2. Buy a US school bus, convert it yourself and get it re-titled as a RV.
  3. Buy a US school bus, get someone to part convert it and do the rest yourself.
  4. Buy a US school bus and get someone else to convert it completely, then re-title it when you arrive.
  5. Buy a US school bus and ship it to the UK to convert, title it as a motorhome with the DVLA, then ship it back to the US.

Building on somebody else's dream

Skoolie interior
We sold our first skoolie with everything in it - the dream is now someone elses

The cheapest option is to buy an already converted Skoolie. These pop up all over the place – eBay, Craigslists, local listings sites – and they can be just a few thousand dollars. Of course the down side is that there is absolutely no way of knowing what state they are in if you can’t look at them yourself. It could have mechanical issues or massive rust problems – there are millions of things that could be an issue.

 

The other problem is timing. If you buy something on an auction site, most people expect pick up within a week or so. That didn’t work for us as it meant leaving all our travel plans to the last minute. Giving up our house, school and jobs felt risky enough. Turning up in America without a home and no idea of where we would find one, that was far more than we happy to sign up for. 

Do it in the U.S yourself

The DIY route is the most economical option – no-body will put as many hours in or work as cheaply for you as you will for yourself! We’d read several blogs by people who had spent as little as $10-12,000 for what looked like a gorgeous home and we were keen to get stuck in on a bigger project. 

 

 

You also have to remember that those blog prices are from people who have spent months, if not years doing up their buses. They would have had access to tools as well as the ability to purchase / pick up bits and bobs as they went along. They undoubtedly had pals with mechanical knowledge or an uncle who was a dab hand at cabinet making. Crucially, they had space to store a 40ft vehicle. 

 

 

If, like us, you have no contacts, no space, no tools and absolutely no clue how to convert a school bus, you are going to have to factor in a helping hand.

A helpful hand on helpful land

Colorado Custom Coachworks

Luckily there is an option for people who do not have their own land or tools.  There are several places that lease space and tools for school bus conversions. Colorado Custom Coachworks, were the big name in 2018, charging 1050/mnth for space to work on a full size bus (2018 prices). That seemed do-able, until we spoke to them and realised how little we knew about conversions and how much help we would need to do the ‘rough in’ – the demolition, electrics, plumbing etc. Prices went from do-able to astronomical. 

 

We shopped around, mailing and calling Blue ridge conversionsSkoolie.comChrome Yellow Bus, Skoolie Homes and Paved to Pines (in Canada) to get costs. Everyone was really helpful but prices were comparable to Colorado – to buy a bus and get the ‘rough in’ done, we were looking at $40k plus. We’d also have to spend a decent chunk of time working on it, which was also going to massively eat into our year-long visa. 

Paying for a conversion

All of the companies that offer part-builds, all do full builds as well. They regularly top $60k (2018 prices). Some are a little cheaper – offering standard ‘flat-pack’ type fits with optional upgrades. By the time you add on all of the options you want to make it unique, you are back up at the $60k mark.

 

I did warn you that the cost was in the conversion!

The British option

RoRo ferry
The RoRo ferry is the only way to bring a full size bus over

We were musing about how American labour costs seemed higher than the UK, and how it would be so much cheaper and easier to do it in the UK, when we realised that there was nothing stopping us exploring that option too. 

 

We spoke to specialists in the UK and yes, it was cheaper. The bus would be too big for a shipping container, so the only option was RoRo (roll on roll off) for approximately $5000 a journey, with a discount if we did three journeys. Tax would be on top of that. But what was the tax implication? That was when I entered into the dark world of tax and shipping.

 

After many long discussions with HMRC, it turned out we would be eligible for I.P tax relief on the shipment over if we were returning it within 6 months.  I couldn’t speak to U.S Border and Customs about the second shipment back, they were not taking any calls, but their website suggested returning an American vehicle back to the U.S would also be tax free. Then, for the third shipment back to the UK, HMRC confirmed we might be eligible for Transfer of Residence because we would have owned the vehicle for over a year. Winner, winner, tax-free dinner!

 

Or not. USBC was taking emails and they quickly confirmed that there were significant hurdles to this plan. if a vehicle is owned by a UK citizen, it doesn’t matter if you are sending it back to the country in which it was bought. Effectively it is now a UK vehicle and although it is US made, the bus would have to meet all applicable FMVSS and EPA emissions standards. You have to produce an EPA form, which is near impossible if you do not have insurance and you can’t get that if your license does not allow you to drive a passenger bus.  You can’t even get anyone else to drive it as only the IOR (Importer of Record) is allowed to do that.  It would have to arrive as a motorhome, which would mean retitling in the UK where it is notoriously tricky (we cover that in our UK build blogs).  

 

And, even if we could get a license for a passenger bus, to really twist the knife, the IOR is only permitted entry on a carnet. The carnet limits movement around North America (i.e it is not valid in Mexico) and restricts travel to 1 year.

 

Finding an American builder

Friends on a Skoolie
Thankfully we had friends who were able to check out our build was real!

The final option left to us was to take a gamble and find someone cheap to purchase and work on the bus for us. We eventually stumbled across someone who fit the bill – a carpenter in Salt Lake City who had worked on trailer conversions and was looking to break into the Skoolie market. We did our due diligence, even writing the legal contract, to make sure that we were protected. We also sent some friends round to check him out. 

 

Managing the build by Skype / Whatsapp with an inexperienced builder was stressful and although it worked out for us, I am not sure I’d recommend it. 

 

For those keen to follow in our footsteps, we’d be happy to talk to you about some safer options. After a year overseas living the Skoolie life, we now have some incredible contacts. Just get in touch.

Categories
Skoolie Stays

Planning a family gap year in a converted Skoolie

Planning a family gap-year in a converted Skoolie

In 2019 we decided to live differently. We quit our jobs in the U.K, rented out our home, took the kids out of school and moved into an American school bus for a year-long U.S adventure.

ruth wimpory skoolie stays

By Ruth

Can you travel in your forties?

Like lots of people our age, our twenties and thirties followed a pattern: university, backpacking, move to the city for a cool job (usually undertaken with a hangover),  find partner, do some slightly more glamorous travelling, move in together, buy a house, get married and have babies. It doesn’t have to be in that order, ours wasn’t, but we ended up ticking all those boxes in a way that felt very spontaneous and exciting.  Whoop whoop we said as we toasted our forties, we are winning at life!

 

Then we hit 41.

Meeting the pilots in the cockpit
We wanted to show our kids some adventures

Changing our mindset

There we were, tick-tocking along in suburbia with kids ensconced in the school system, a mortgage, a car that we needed to take the kids to their various after school activities, careers that we wanted to rethink, the occasional night out when the grandparents were available to babysit and a campervan trip every year to France. It was good, but was it good enough? Google and Facebook were regularly reminding us of our global travels pre-kids. We didn’t want to revisit the days of buckets of sangsong whisky on a Thai beach, but going travelling was just as appealing now as it was in our twenties and thirties. 

So why not? Why couldn’t we? What was actually stopping us from travelling the world? Nothing. We worked out that we could leverage our assets to give us the money we needed to travel, so we started planning. 

A globe
It was choose your own adventure time

When you can choose to travel anywhere in the world, where do you pick? A family gap year is likely to be a once in a lifetime experience, so we wanted to make sure we chose a destination that would work for all of us.

 

America offered deserts, mountains, plains, swamps, canyons, bears, whales, snowboarding, kayaking… cities full of great architecture, music and literary history… there was so much to see and do. On top of all of this, the language is the same, the culture and food are recognisable (our kids are good eaters but expecting them to cheerfully tuck into mondongo (sheep stomach) from a roadside cafe is a step too far) and we have friends based in the U.S that we would love to visit. 

 

To read more about how we settled on America, read our original travel blog.

The ultimate road-trip

Along with what we want, there is also what we need. On the most basic level this was food, drink, a bed, a vehicle and money in our pockets. 

The most cost-effective way for us to tick off all those needs was to buy an RV (a motorhome) – a tiny home we could take with us.

That was when we started thinking about what that tiny home might look with. If you are heading off on a road-trip, you need an iconic vehicle and there was a specific one that we had in mind.  

Skoolies in the UK
We did lots of research into skoolies before we left the UK - here we are trying them out for size!

Buying a skoolie

We did an enormous amount of research into the best way to convert a school bus.  Should we try and convert it ourselves? There wasn’t time. Should we pay a company to do it? We didn’t have the funds. Could we purchase someone else’s? It was all a bit last minute and risky.  Could we buy one in the UK and ship it over? No, too many import and export issues. In the end, we found a start-up builder to help us buy one and convert it. 

Project managing a builder remotely, particularly  one who was new to Skoolies, was really tough. We did our due diligence and wrote the contracts ourselves but it was a steep learning curve for both us and our builder. Overall it worked out, the bus was amazing, but we had to be flexible on our budget and ended up having to do a lot of the finish ourselves. You can see our build process here.

Budgeting for a year

Budgeting for a year
It took months to compile a budget that made us feel confident we could survive a year away

Several months before we even announced our plans to travel, the budget was an ever-growing beast of an Excel document. We factored in how much of our savings we wanted to spend on a bus and whether we could get any return on investment. We looked at our existing living expenditure, costs in North America and the reported spending of families travelling in the U.S in skoolies / RVs. We then ‘guestimated’ what it would cost us.

The word ‘guestimate’ makes it all sound a bit flippant. Don’t be deceived – we put a lot of effort into budget-planning. We had decided that, if we were going to buy a bus, we wanted to make this trip last a full year. We needed to know that we would be able to afford to eat, wash our clothes, find places to camp, have fun, visit attractions, cope with the costs of managing our UK lives from overseas and cover the costs of owning and furnishing a bus in North America. 

 

If you are planning your own year away, you can read our original travel blog about budgeting here.

Visas

To go to America as a visitor, you need a visa. UK citizens are eligible to apply under the ‘Visa Waiver Program’, but this only gives you up to 90 days. We obviously wanted to get our money’s worth from our big yellow bus, so needed longer. The only option for us was the much lengthier (and more expensive) process to obtain a B2 visa.

The B2 visa application meant a visit to the embassy for interview. We had to show all sorts of detail about our budget and plans, but we were well-prepared and were approved.

B2 visas allow you to stay for a maximum of a year.  That doesn’t mean you get a year though. We had read in a few places that you are at the mercy of the security officer on the day and when we arrived in Orlando we were greeted by the grumpiest face we saw in the whole of America. Mr Negativity did a lot of head shaking, telling us that our visas were not valid for more than 120 days etc. Eventually he said he’d stamp 6 months and we could reapply but he didn’t think it was likely we would be approved unless we had a VERY good reason for staying.

You can read more detail about the B2 visa application process here and, if you are wondering how we did end up staying for year, it turns out that if you have the tenacity to jump through the many hoops, don’t mind dealing with over 50 pages worth of application and supporting materials and have the funds to pay out for another application fee (ouch), you should be fine.

Applying for a B2 visa
Visas approved there was now nothing stopping us from heading to the States

And we're off to America!

Finally, after months of intense planning, we finally reached D-day… it was time to depart the UK. After all the hard work, it was a blessed relief to sit down for several hours and do nothing except watch movies.

Categories
America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Why choose a family gap year in North America?

When you can choose to travel anywhere in the world, where do you pick? A family gap year is likely to be a once in a lifetime experience, so we wanted to make sure we chose a destination that would work for all of us.

We didn’t end up where we expected.

Developed vs developing?

World Bank Developing Countries Map

My husband and I are both well travelled – backpacking is in our bones. Within months of first meeting each other we’d gone on a remote trek in Nepal and before we committed to moving in together, we spent 6 months roughing it through central America. I know that if it was just us heading off travelling, we would not even consider any of the ‘World Bank’s Advanced Economies’, opting instead for the challenges and excitement of developing countries – giving us an insight into a world very different from our own.

However, we are not going on our own. When you are 9 and 6, what you consider to be enjoyable about a holiday is very different. We want the kids to stay engaged for the whole of our family gap year. If we choose the wrong place, they might want to cut the trip short and come home.

At the same time, we don’t want to take a year out and spend a shed load of money if the destination doesn’t excite us. What to do… what to do.

The big question – what works for all of us?

We need to make sure our holiday is a winner!

To decide which destination would would be the most enjoyable place to travel, we broke the big question down into smaller ones:

  • What would the kids love?
  • What would the kids hate?
  • What could we cope with?
  • What do we all need?

We hoped that by answering these questions we would be able to make a better educated decision on the destination for our family gap year.

Love it vs HATE it.

To get a good idea of how the kids might find a developing country trip, we had a think back to previous travel experiences and tried to imagine what they would think in the same scenario:

Glacier trekking in Argentina

‘This is amazeballs I never want to leave’

  • Whale and dolphin watching
  • Hiking on glaciers and watching icebergs roll
  • Fishing, swimming and diving from boats
  • Kayaking on turquoise seas
  • Playing with new friends
  • Camping under the stars and toasting marshmallows
  • Climbing mountains and being the first to the top
  • Snowboarding, ski-ing and sledging
  • Surfing and body boarding
  • Ice creams and tasty treats
  • Building dens and getting muddy

‘I want to go home this is rubbish’

Boiled egg and cabbage
This was the vegetarian option in Bali – a boiled egg and some overcooked cabbage and potatoes
  • 14+ hour bus journeys in which you don’t get a seat
  • Completely unappetising meals.
  • Injections and tablets.
  • Roadside cafeterias that only serve food like Mondongo (hubby ate this in El Salvador even though it was covered in flies and we didn’t know what it was. It’s tripe apparently) .
  • A language you don’t understand.
  • Bedbugs and mosquitoes.
  • Being chased for a photo because you have yellow hair .
  • Delhi belly .
  • Mopeds careering around the road carrying driver, 3 passengers, a basket of hens and some window glazing (ok – they probably would find this hysterical … until we had to cross the road in front of them).
  • Hostel after hostel after hostel after hostel…

Love it, hate it… but can we cope with it?

When I talk about what we could cope with, it’s more than our own needs and interests. When you have kids you do have to seriously consider how their experiences are going to affect you and whether you are being a responsible parent or not.

‘Mummy is freaking out right now’

What would I do if we got stranded on a desert island because the boat we had arranged failed to turn up? Or if the chicken bus we were travelling in swerved around a mountain pass too quickly? How would I react if the only transport option was on the back of a moped with bare tyre treads? How would I handle it if someone tried to scam us or threatened us? All of these things have happened on my travels.

There is also the strange interpretation of health and safety…

Why is it when we are travelling that we sign up to activities and trips that we know we would never do at home? This is not just because the experience doesn’t exist at home, although there is a lack of volcanoes to surf down, piranha-infested rivers to swim in and anacondas to track, but because they simply wouldn’t be allowed at home. They are far too risky.

Volcano boarding in Nicaragua
Safety gear to snowboard down a volcano? Just a pair of rubber gloves and a white tee-shirt for me!

Now that we are contemplating taking the kids on a family gap year, do we really want them pestering us to go on an lion hunt armed with sharp sticks or trying some kind of ‘spiritual’ concoction to banish demons? Do we want them trekking up live volcanoes to stick pokey sticks into the fire? No!

Needy needs

Along with what we want, there is also what we need. On the most basic level this is food, drink, a bed, a vehicle and money in our pockets. We also want beautiful landscapes, open spaces, amazing architecture, good food…

But what about the needs that can’t be found in every country? We spoke to our headteacher about taking the kids out of school for a year and whilst he told us that as long as we focused on maths and literacy, the rest would just come with the experience, he did say we need to consider their developmental age too. We plan to extract our youngest from school for the whole of year 2 of primary and, apart from this being a SATS year, this is a big one for his understanding of social structure amongst peers. It is really important he interacts with other kids his own age – not just us and his brother, and that they both stay connected to friends and family at home. We need somewhere where he can do this – somewhere with a language and culture he can understand and reliable WiFi.

The WiFi thing is important for us too. Although I like to think we are going to switch off our devices and spend a year living our lives to the max, the reality is that we too need to stay in touch. We both want to freelance to fund the dream, you can’t do that if the only place you can connect is a WiFi cafe 3 hours north of your campsite.

The North American dream

Road trip!

It didn’t take us long to realise that our family gap year should be about wildlife and nature and beautiful landscapes. It should be about family activities that are exciting but also safe. It should be about finding English-speaking friends who the kids can play and learn with and it should cater to our WiFi needs.

We whittled the choices down and landed on North America. It offers everything we need and has some of the most incredible road trips, which is a biggy because in order to keep costs down (and interests up), we would want to escape the cities and live life on the road.

Behold the birth of the bus idea!

Categories
America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

We bought an American school bus

Yes, it’s true. We now own a 37ft yellow school bus that until recently was ferrying kids to lessons in Nampa, Idaho. We plan to rip out the seats of our iconic vehicle and turn it into a motorhome, otherwise known as an RV or, to those in the know, a ‘Skoolie’. We leave this summer to travel North America and we will be gone for a year.

A family gap year

For a long time, my husband and I have felt like we wanted to do a bit more with our lives. Climbing the career ladder has never been a priority for either of us; we work to live not live to work. But when you have a family, a mortgage, school term dates to adhere to, you can’t just give up your job and your home and head off into the hills….. or can you?

Yes you can. There is a lot more planning to do, but it is possible to go travelling in your forties without (hopefully) losing all your worldly possessions in the process. We will have to be careful – indeed it won’t be so much a holiday as a time in which we will be living differently – but the benefits far outweigh the negatives, both for us and our kids.

Why take a gap year in America?

Antelope Canyon. Ridiculously gorgeous

Of all the places in the world we want to go, the U.S has never been near the top. Both my husband and I have travelled extensively and America just seems a bit too much like home. It’s not just about us though; we have two little boys to think of.

America offers deserts, mountains, plains, swamps, canyons, bears, whales, snowboarding, kayaking… cities full of great architecture, music and literary history… there’s so much to see and do for two kids that have never been any further than the Algarve. On top of all of this, the language is the same, the culture and food are recognisable and we have friends there, which makes travelling and making new friends easier. We can also get reliable WiFi; the kids can keep in touch with their grandparents and we can continue freelancing.

There was concern about whether we could get on board with a country where the current political climate honestly scares us a little. In the end we figured that we’re coming from a country where the current political climate scares us a little, a Brexit-battered Britain.

Once we decided to start in the U.S we looked into the visa situation. Whilst it may tick a lot of boxes for a family gap year, it’s not quite so easy to execute that plan – the ESTA visa gives UK citizens just 90 days. You also can’t pop in and out of Canada or Mexico to renew – you have to leave Norht America entirely. There are other, more expensive, options though and we are in the process of applying for a B1/B2 visa that will allow us to stay for longer.

Why did we buy a Skoolie?

Because they are so flippin’ cool!

Amazing camp spots: Image from theskoolie.com

In truth, this was how we justified America. When we visualised a trip around the States from behind the wheel of a big, yellow bus, it became a totally different destination. It became the beautiful America, rather than the political one.

Of course one of the first things we found out is that ‘Chrome Yellow’, the famous particular shade for US school buses, is not allowed on converted RV’s. It’s a shame we have to change it but I guess it would be a bit awkward if you pulled over to take a call and a queue of schoolkids boarded your new home…

I plan to write a whole lot more about how we found our bus, how we learnt everything there is to know about skoolies and how we will convert it in this blog. If you fancy following our journey, sign up for blog updates.

But living in a bus for a year?

I’m sure it will be hard. Sometimes our 4 bed house doesn’t feel big enough for us all! We’ll just have to get used to it.

Family of 4 in campervan huddled together
We are used to small spaces!

I’m confident we will. I know it’s not the same, but we know we can adapt to a small space – our campervan quickly becomes home whenever we go away it it. We also know that this kind of travel works for us – heading out in Old Bill (our campers new name since it joined the Quirky Campers website for hire) we get the kind of spontaneity that is hard to find with young children. We can travel anywhere we fancy, sleep wherever we like (more or less!), discover places off the beaten track and enjoy random, unexpected adventures.

Of course a 37ft bus is not quite so manoeuvrable, we won’t be able to ‘stealth camp’, but the roads are bigger in America. The conversions are much more homely as well – proper tiny homes.

How will you convert it?

Who wouldn’t love living in this gorgeous space – photo from insta @laststopalaska

We did an enormous amount of research into the best way to convert a school bus. Buying a good bus is cheap (about $5000 USD) but the conversion process and storage of a vehicle is not.

We looked at whether my husband could fly out early to do the work himself, but without being in the US this was always going to be tough.

We looked into conversions that people were selling. There were some great value options but, again, we are not in the US so we can’t check them out and store them. We’d have to wait until the last-minute which is scary.

We looked at established companies in the US who do the conversions for you: Skoolie Homes, Colorado Custom Coachworks, Paved to Pines, Chrome Yellow and many more. Prices leaped to the $60k mark.

We even looked at whether it was do-able to bring it to the UK to convert it with a friend over here who has his own school bus conversion company. (Check out Shred & Butta for more on them). It opened up a million import and export issues. There is a whole blog piece I plan to write about our investigations if you are interested (or want something to fall asleep to!).

We’re now working with a company who build tiny homes in Salt Lake City. It’s taken us a while to work out contracts and insurance etc as he’s new to the skoolie conversion process. Everything is in place now though and the team are as excited as we are. Our bus has been collected and is currently sitting with them in SLC.

Will you have to home-school?

Award at school
No trophies and certificates at the school of mum and dad!

Yep, we plan to home school the kids. This scared me at first but it’s totally do-able. Amazingly, you don’t actually have to follow a curriculum if you teach your kids yourself. As we are only taking them out of school for a year, we will try and follow some of what their classmates are doing – just to help with continuity and to help them keep in touch.

We met with the headmaster and he thought it sounded like a great adventure. He said we should focus on maths and literacy but ‘the rest would just naturally come’ with the trip. The only minor concern he had was for the 6 year old who will be at a key learning point – at that age they get a much better sense of how they fit in the social structure of their class and how to interact with other kids. It’s important we ensure he mixes with other children. Another tick for America.

I’ve read lots of forums about schools making life tricky for families that want to home-school instead. We did not get this experience. Our headmaster was happy for us to work with the school and make it interactive and has told us he will sit with us himself to show us the school’s ‘maths philosophy’, which will help us teach the kids.

But yes, before you ask, we have to formally remove them from the school and then reapply when we want them to return. There is no guarantee that either child will be accepted – it all depends on space. Although this is a cause of concern, we won’t let it stand in the way.

How will you fund the trip?

We are going to realise our assets! That means we shall be storing our stuff and renting out our home and campervan. We’ll also continue to freelance – we both have the kind of jobs where remote working is completely acceptable. We may even look at opportunities for sponsorship. Ever fancied seeing your name on the side of a bus?!