And so we came home. 12 months, 14,000 miles, 18 states and 1 pandemic later, our feet are back on British soil. The great adventure is over. So what happens next?
Well one thing we weren’t really expecting to do so quickly – sell our beloved bus.
It was very strange to leave America. After such an epic year of travel it was always going to feel a bit weird, and we knew it would be hard to leave our bus behind, but the pandemic added an extra layer of apprehension. Would we make it back to Heathrow without catching Coronavirus? Would our flights be cancelled again? Would our insurance step up if we needed it or would I be refused on the basis of some tenuous link to Covid? We were so focused on monitoring everything and planning our movements, covering every eventuality and coming up with plan after plan to get us safely back to London, that we barely thought about what would happen when we got there.
The journey ended up going exactly to plan. Renee and Brett from the Skoolie Homestead drove us to the airport in Savannah. It was the easiest long-haul trip I have ever made; the airports were empty and the queues non-existent. Of the 100 seats in our section of the plane, only six of them were filled and we were four of those. We spread out and congratulated ourselves on our American exit.
But then we had to make our UK entrance. We felt totally unprepared. We had not even thought about life after July 10th, other than how lovely it was going to be to see family and friends, and it hit us hard. The kids were in their element, ‘there’s the shops!’, ‘there’s the school!’. Guy and I just stared at the busy roads and our end destination – suburbia. Everything we had wanted to escape was sucking us back in and none of it was any different. Why was our bus sitting in the wide open spaces of America while we were sitting in a car feigning excitement about seeing our house?
Quarantine and the reintroduction to reality
With the negative frame of mind, two-weeks of quarantine was both a blessing and a curse. It was frustrating to be stuck inside and we found it very hard to adapt to the stillness of living in a house, sleeping in a bedroom with no whirring fans and all being in different rooms doing different things. I think the forced separation from everyone helped us acclimatise though. Even the boys felt restless and we were all grumpy and struggling to chat to people.
When we were finally released to the people of Brighton it felt very strange to not hug them. We had a constant stream of visitors coming to see us from the end of the garden path but after a year of not seeing someone, you want to get in there and get physical!
It’s just over a month since we returned now and the kids seem back to normal. Guy and I still have the travel blues but we are getting there. When Google or FB remind me of ‘this time last year’, it already seems a bit like a dream. I sometimes can’t believe we actually did it – bucked the trend of settling down in our forties and instead took our kids to travel the world.
Travelling in your forties
Travelling is a rite of passage in your twenties or early thirties when you have only shallow roots that attach you to your world – no kids, no property, no real commitments. You just up and leave with your back pack and return refreshed and full of new ideas about the next chapter of your life. When you hit your forties though you find those tubers have burrowed deeper into a complicated web of work, children and financial responsibilities. The drive to travel is still there but taking a sabbatical from life feels like an impossible dream.
But it’s not impossible. Our happy and healthy return proves that it can be done and I’m so proud of us all for making the dream become a reality. I’m also thrilled to see the positive effect our trip had on friends and family – it felt that people suddenly realised that there was more to be done in their time on the planet and longer trips away were booked, plans were made to buy campervans and people wanted to come out and join us as part of the adventure.
But though I would wholeheartedly recommend a sabbatical, its not a decision to be taken lightly.
Taking a gamble
We took an enormous leap of faith to make our trip happen. It is hard to hand over a ton of money to a stranger to work on a bus that you have not even seen, then manage that build through video calls on WhatsApp. We had six months tinged with anxiety and fear, as well as a lot of DIY and bank transfers as we booked flights, formally removed the kids from school, handed in our notice and packed up our house. It felt like we were taking a precarious gamble with our family.
When we arrived in the U.S the challenges continued. It’s pretty scary hitting the road in a 38ft, 14 tonne vehicle. You have to have a special HGV license to drive something of that size in the UK. In America, once the bus is registered as a personal vehicle, you can drive it with your standard license and so we were able to just pick it up and go. We had a brief practice in a car park and watched a few YouTube videos (I kid you not!) about ‘squaring corners’ in a bus, and headed out into urban Salt Lake City. It was a huge test of nerves but this trip was always designed to push us out of our comfort zone.
Getting used to the road wasn’t the only thing we had to accomplish. Home was carpets, bath-tubs, walk-in showers, wardrobes of clothes, large kitchens with all the appliances, sofas, Netflix, a flushing loo, doors to different rooms, nearby shops… we had none of these things. Privacy had to go, cleanliness standards had to drop considerably and we had to rethink how we shopped, laundered our clothes and used water. We were living tiny and largely off-grid for a whole year and so were reliant on solar panels generating the bulk of our energy and a compost loo.
Home-schooling was one of the biggest challenges. It was a great unknown and was harder than I thought it would be. Ironic really that everybody has now been doing it for a huge chunk of the year and knows what I am talking about!
Many home-schoolers ‘de-school’ their kids and just learn on the road, but this option wasn’t open to us as both boys wanted to go back to school. We came up with a plan to follow the curriculum in literacy and maths to keep them at the same level as their peers, but let the trip provide the rest of their education. I’m so proud of both boys as it was tough to transition to learning in the bus, lying on the bed to do literacy (there was no other space) and staying awake whilst discussing transitive verbs. I wanted to go to sleep and I was the teacher!
Learning really came into its own when we let the trip itself do the teaching. When people started to stand up for #BlackLivesMatter, we were in the deep South and could see first-hand the problems America has with recognising the past; we learnt about food chains and eco-systems by climbing onto the roof deck and watching wolves, reintroduced into Yellowstone to balance the ecosystem, hunt bison on the plains below us; rather than reading about temperate rainforest we slept in the middle of the Douglas Firs and Red Cedars, waking up to the earthy smells and eerie green light through the canopy; we learnt first-hand what to do if a grizzly bear comes close and what a tarantula looks like close-up .
Perhaps the biggest lessons came from the bus. We saw how hard it was to stick to a budget and be mindful of living tiny, only keeping things we really wanted; we read more books; we tried different foods; we met all sorts of people and we learnt how to get along with each other in a small space.
So why did we sell the bus?
When people ask us what the best part of our trip was, we tell them it was the bus. Converted skoolies may be all over Instagram but they are few and far between on the actual American roads. A tiny drop in the RV ocean. We felt like celebrities driving around in such a cool vehicle and people would constantly come up to talk to us. She was an absolute beauty inside and out, performing brilliantly over all terrain. It was horrendously sad to say goodbye when we flew home but we held onto a dream that we either come back to finish our trip on the east coast or somehow bring her home to the UK in the future.
We quite quickly realised, once we sat down to do the calculations, that bringing our bus back to the UK made no financial sense. Retired school buses in America are plentiful, so they are inexpensive. The cost is in the professional conversion because of all the gear needed to travel off grid (compost toilet, massive propane tank etc). If we brought our bus back to the UK we’d have to pay shipping fees and then would likely need to change the interior to make it more suitable for Airbnb customers – nobody wants to use a compost toilet and empty out buckets of their own wee – and to fit British standards. None of these problems were insurmountable, they just would add cost and all our savings had already been ploughed into the bus. When we looked at the market, we realised we could sell the bus and recoup those savings and give ourselves the capital to invest in another project. Maybe even another bus. Sense soon over-rode sentiment and it went online – the UK2USA Skoolie was up for sale.
We were thrilled when we found a buyer – a lovely family who are super excited about their new adventure. It’s hard to imagine our tiny world belonging to someone else, but I’m happy for them and glad the UK2USAskoolie lives to go on another American road trip. That said, it felt very, very strange to see the video of it driving away from the Skoolie Homestead earlier today.
A ‘cost neutral’ year
Aside from ‘making it happen’, the other big challenge I set myself was keeping the trip ‘cost neutral’. We didn’t have a bottomless bank account; we needed to fund the trip without losing all our worldly possessions. We needed to exist for a year on the return we would make on the rental of our UK home, our two flats and our campervan. This was not a holiday, it was living differently and it would only work if we made some adjustments.
And did we achieve our target? It was pretty darn close. In the end the balance sheets show us slightly in the red but I am not going to beat myself up about it– no-one in the world could have predicted the effects of a global pandemic on their budget. We managed to keep to our monthly budget and sold the bus for a good price, but the pound is worth a lot less now than it was then. We also had to buy new last-minute flights when our New York – London flights were cancelled and, because we had been stuck in quarantine in Georgia for 2 months, had to get internal flights for the section that we had hoped to drive. Even my sensible contingency could not cover all of those eventualities. I console myself by thinking that we still spent less in a whole year than many of my friends have spent on a 2-week all-inclusive holiday in Europe or even a week away in Centerparcs!
The next chapter
And so with no bus to return to, what comes next? Well, once we have weathered the storm of travel blues, we will set about the plans that we started to hatch whilst camping out in the many incredible farms, distilleries and vineyards across America. We will inject a bit of the Skoolie magic into our UK world, work on what we learned in our year away and embark on something new and exciting. We may not be on a physical road anymore but we are certainly on a metaphorical one, and travel has left us refreshed and ready to put our foot down on the pedal. Watch this space!