They’ve toured the backroads, travelled the highways, dwelled in campsites, rest stops, and parking lots for at least half a century. They’ve migrated with the change of the seasons, from farmlands to factories, from forest parks to food plants and back again, since cars became commonplace in the 60’s. The restless and the uprooted are no newcomers to the vast American roads, nor is the tribe of nomads that live in converted school buses. The drug-fueled trips of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters were famously chronicled by Tom Wolfe, who traveled in their psychedelic-painted school bus, Further. Today, it amounts to somewhat of a counterculture cliché: the long-haired hippies or derelict vagabonds in dilapidated bus-communes. But, like so many other expectations of society, Millennials are about to remodel it.
The new tribe of bus-dwellers have inherited a lot of aesthetics, some spirituality, and less of the politics of their precursors. They refer to their way of life as the "Skoolie movement," and to themselves as "Skoolies," the name applied to both buses and residents. They are part of a greater trend towards a minimalist lifestyle, valuing freedom in movement and time over financial stability and the rat-race of making rent. Like Tiny House-owners and #VanLifers, they’ve checked out of society to reconnect with nature and search for a simpler, more meaningful life.
Even though the Skoolie movement is still largely concentrated on the West Coast, the power of social media, fueled by changes to the socioeconomic prospect of the middle class, seems to make it a question of when, not whether, school buses with fancy paint jobs will conquer the parking lots and freeways of the Eastern seaboard. Obviously, statistics are hard to keep on a group defined by its proclivity towards living offgrid, so there are no official figures on the number of Skoolies roaming the roads. But the largest dedicated Skoolie group on Facebook, Skoolie Nation, counts just above 22,000 members, up from 18,000 half a year ago. The sentiment within the community is that it is growing, and rather rapidly. In due course, it might shift our conceptions of nomads, the middle class, and maybe even that old car-crash called the American dream. Or maybe not, for what seems the most distinctive feature of this new tribe of nonconformists is how conventionally middle class they are.
OFF-GRID BUT ONLINE
Holly Williams is standing barefoot in a pair of sandals at the end of her parents’s driveway on Long Island, NY. Her toes are tapping rapidly, rhythmically on the tips of her soles. Peering up towards the main road, she is waiting for a bus to appear. She’s invited a Skoolie-couple to come by and compare buses.
Holly quit her job at an upscale Manhattan furniture studio in February. The wiry 25 year-old had wanted to focus on her aspirations as a print designer for a while, and she needed a change of scenery for a change of inspiration. In anticipation of similar needs in the future, she decided to buy a school bus. It’s parked next to her family’s farm, tucked away by a row of pine trees, and with its new camouflage-green paint job, it almost blends into the scenic surroundings. She’s been working on it in her spare time since she bought it last summer, but for the last two months, she’s devoted all her waking hours on turning it into her full-time home. Holly’s 120 sq. ft. bus will hold a queen-sized bed, a small kitchenette, a large work desk, and a bathroom. “I’ll basically have all the amenities I would have if I lived in a studio in NYC,” she says.
Other buses have full residential refrigerators, some even have onboard washer and dryers, and all of them have solar panels to power iPhones and laptops. Holly still needs to build custom cabinets for the kitchen, install an oven, figure out a lot of wiring, and cover up the interior once it’s done. Next to her bed, she will place a woodburning stove to keep her warm year-round. She seems confident that she can pull it off in the month and a half that’s left on her timeline. So far, she’s been both successful and self-sufficient, having done all the work herself with advice and tools from her dad. Her abandoned career as a leatherworker has come in handy as well. “I’ll probably just make something from some leftover leather I have somewhere,” seems to be the standard response when she is confronted by miscellaneous tasks like the ugly, bare dashboards or the ragged upholstery on the driver’s seat.
Most Skoolies have names, easily recognized and obviously displayed as an @InstagramHandle somewhere on the bus. Often the names are cute puns, bohemian references, or mindful mantras of self-improvement, like "Roam4Wild," "Simply Us and a Bus," or "Road School of Life." Holly has named her bus "Wander." Where a regular bus would display its route, Holly’s has a sign saying "Pine Barren Press," the name of her print design business. Her designs are often inspired by nature “or have environmental undertones.” When a former professor suggested that she come and do a fellowship at his new studio in the Catskills, “it was the excuse I’d been waiting for,” says Holly. She has short, red curls, fair skin and brown bespectacled eyes. “I needed some way to justify all of this to my parents,” she jokes. Even though Holly still needs to mount and install the solar panels that will power her new lifestyle, she carries no hope of going completely off-grid and living in a perfect, demonetized relationship with nature. She admires the idea and those who try to live it out, but she knows that she will depend on grocery shopping for food, and sometimes a Starbucks for wi-fi.
Waiting at the end of her parents’ driveway, she is not too worried about the compromises of the future, though. “I can’t believe I’m finally meeting another Skoolie,” she cheerfully announces. Over Instagram, one of the central sites for Skoolie communication, she’s invited another Skoolie-couple, Cat and José, to come visit and see her build. The internet might be the most revolutionary part about the new bus nomads, compared to their roaming forefathers. Not only has it facilitated acquaintance-making beyond chance encounters at campsites, it has also made it possible to stay in touch with those new friends that are never close to a mailbox. Message boards on YouTube and Facebook are the town halls of these wayfaring villages. Here, everything about Skoolie existence is debated. Questions like “What do I do with my kids, as a single mother, if I want to date?” (Hire a sitter, play loud music, or sell them on the idea of a camp-out.) Or the daily enquiry of “Do I need another type of driver’s license to drive a Skoolie?” (You don’t, you just need to re-register it as a mobile home, not a commercial vehicle.) It’s a new way to stay in touch and reach out that provides a sense of community, which the long, solitary hours on the road sorely lack.
Loneliness is no longer a premise of nomad life as it was for earlier adventure-seekers. If she wanted to, Holly could meet up and travel with fellow Skoolies all the time. She probably won’t, though. She is thrilled by the prospect of being profoundly alone now and again, but underneath her bedframe, she’s already built a compartment for the dog she wants to get.
Presently, she is anxious to have a real-life rendezvous with her new community; the virtual is still merely a substitute, a facilitator for the physical world. “All the Skoolies, I’ve seen on Instagram are always fully converted and covered in filters to make it all look perfect, and I just need to see the mess that came before that. All the ugly welds and the make-shift solutions,” she says. The wind rustles the pine trees, and a soft rain falls on her naked toes, but she doesn’t care.
NAVIGATING NOWHERE FROM NEW JERSEY
In a parking lot in Willow Brook, NJ, Michael Fuehrer sits in his living room. The sky is as grey as the nearby shopping mall on this afternoon in March, but Michael has brought some life to the sleepy setting. His bus “Navi,” the 27-year-old’s full-time home for the past four years, has 225 square feet of living space. It is fitted with a deck on the roof and painted the same camo-green as Holly’s. The sight of Michael’s off-beat colored, 35-foot vehicle dominates the vista of suburban uniformity. After visiting every land-bound state, Michael has come back home, but not for too long.
Michael Fuehrer turned to nomad life after growing disenchanted with the prospect of finding a job that would earn him just enough to make rent, while paying off his debt. To reset after his graduate degree in anthropology, he and a friend undertook a road trip in a SUV. When they came back half a year later, he had decided to buy a bus and live on the road. “I liked both the simplicity of not having a lot of things and responsibilities to think about and the freedom to go wherever, whenever I wanted to,” he says. With the help of his dad Chris, he bought a bus and converted it in nine months, which cost him about $35,000 all in all. He opted for a Skoolie, because he wanted more space than a van and couldn’t afford both a Tiny House and a truck to tow the two-story trailer-home. Back then, he had “very little construction skills,” but has since become an accomplished Skoolie artisan.
“I just picked this up today,” he announces, nodding at the yellow bus. “It was in the neighborhood and such a good deal, so I brought my dad to pick it up. I had to!” He shows off the new purchase and explains why it was an offer too good to refuse; only 35,000 miles on the odometer, almost no rust, and tires with a lot of miles left on the rubber. “It’s almost a perfect canvas for a conversion,” he concludes the tour. His 5’10” frame is garbed in what Bear Grylls probably wears to the supermarket; a red woodsman’s shirt, tan hiking pants and brown boots. A green trucker-style cap crowns a suntanned face, from which two brown eyes and ditto full beard smile patiently. A logo on the front of his baseball cap shows his bus driving off into the horizon with his online alias above it: Navigation Nowhere.
Even though he is excited about the potential of his recent $2,000 purchase, he doesn’t plan to refurbish it just yet; he is happy with "Navi" right now. The new bus is an investment, a business opportunity. For a couple of years, Michael has offered consulting and construction work to other aspiring Skoolies. Now, it’s one of his main streams of income, as the market for going mobile is taking off. (Eventually, he sold the new bus for $4000 after spending a couple of weeks gutting it.) Specialized Skoolie builders are popping up, like Skoolie Homes in Tennessee and Chrome Yellow in Colorado. Michael got into it by popular demand: “A lot of people contact me over social media and ask about what bus to buy, or how to go about doing certain things in their build,” he says. He is happy to help and often does so for free, once he’s made enough money to meet his monthly budget of $2,000. That covers the occasional camp site, groceries, a full tank of gas, propane for his stove, and even payments on his student loans. On his personal website, www.navigationnowhere.com, all the specs of his bus are listed, along with Amazon links to the materials and components used. If visitors buy through his links, Michael makes a little money at no extra expense to the buyer.
Another avenue of revenue is Michael’s social media presence. He has almost 60,000 followers on Instagram, where he details his travels, conversion work, and occasionally features fellow Skoolies he meets at the various gatherings and Tiny House festivals. He hasn’t monetized his following to the extent of the most prominent Tiny House residents or van-lifers, who are able to live almost completely off advertisements and sponsorships. But he has advertised for a couple of companies, whose products cater to the Skoolie lifestyle, and given shout-outs to some fellow Skoolie builders.
The initiation of any new Skoolie-dweller is ostensibly the YouTube-tour of their home-on-wheels, as soon as it’s fully functional and decorated in the style of organic hipster-studio that seems to be the unifying aesthetic. Inspirational quotes, repurposed wood, and quirky trinkets are trending. A staple of the Skoolie tour is an almost religious attention paid to three amenities that regular homeowners take for granted: the toilet, refrigerator, and storage space. In Michael’s tour of ‘Navi’, he shows off his fridge: “It’s actually a fully residential, 120 volts, it runs off my solar.” What’s notable about it, apparently, is how convenient and conventional it really is. The functionality is still defined in relation to the suburban homes that most Skoolie-owners left behind. His toilet is a composting one, which means that he doesn’t have to empty a black water tank. Instead it’s designed to separate the liquids from the solids, so the latter decompose and the former run into a tank that needs to be emptied a couple of times a week. A fan and a tube guide any odors out of the bus. Almost as easy as a regular house, but not quite.
Michael doesn’t miss the comforts of normalcy, though, and he doesn’t see himself living in a brick and mortar house in the foreseeable future. “I’ve grown used to living the minimalist life now. In the beginning, I had to adjust to taking short showers, because my water tank is only 130 gallons. But now I just do it naturally, even if I’m visiting my parents, I only ever do 30-second showers,” he says.
Not even love will deter Michael from his roaming lifestyle, as he doesn’t see himself falling for someone, “who doesn’t want to live an alternative lifestyle.” He rarely feels lonely because he’s made it his creed to always open up his home to anyone interested. His two couches behind the driver’s compartment double as foldouts, and he’s had as many as nine people living on the bus at one point. “Living with someone, and sometimes someone you just met, in a small space teaches you a lot about yourself and the other person. When I get a girlfriend, I’m going to take her on the bus as the first thing. If our relationship can survive two weeks in the bus, I’m going to marry her,” he laughs.
He has made many friends this way, as well as acquaintances that he’s probably not going to room up with again. “Generally, people in the community are very open and friendly people. They really don’t fit the stereotype of someone living in a bus or a van,” he says. “Most of the people I’ve met are regular people, some of them even have very normal, well-paid jobs, they just happen to live on a bus. I know guys who do financial analysis or consulting from their Skoolie, it’s just possible now with the internet, and you can save up a lot of money that way.”
Michael Fuehrer doesn’t need, or necessarily want, a lot of money, he says. He just wants enough to keep ‘Navi’ rolling. Heads turn as the two Fuehrers maneuver the two buses around, leaving the parking lot in New Jersey. Michael’s going to work on some home improvement for his dad before he’s back on the road. First stop is a paid bus conversion in upstate New York with a friend. From there, it’s off to nowhere.
THE BUS(INESS) NOMADS
Back on Long Island, Holly finally sees a big, turquoise Skoolie swing into her driveway. It bumps across the gravel and grass, the unevenness of the road jerking up through the strained suspension, rocking the pastel chassis, and swaying the wooden, fenced deck on the roof.
Driver and co-owner José Rivera rolls down the window: “Do I need to back the rest of the way, or can I make a turn down there somewhere?” he asks. Holly jumps out of her sandals, hopping around the newcomer with a pure joy. There is no room to turn it around, so José decides to back the 30-feet bus down the narrow driveway. Afterwards he explains that he has worked as a trucker, so he’s used to maneuvering big vehicles. Holly enters the bus but doesn’t get further than the lock. “Hi, I’m Holly,” she manages, before her excitement gets the better of her. “Where did you get that lock? How does it work? Is it safe enough?” she asks José. He smiles and takes down the hood of his grey sweatshirt. After recommending the triple-bolt lock, he leads Holly on a tour of the beach-vibey bus, carefully explaining the finer details of his handiwork. Cat Ovejas, José’s girlfriend and business partner, sits on one of the daybeds behind the driver’s seat and smiles at the Skoolie geeks already speaking their own esoteric language of practical ingenuity.
Cat and José met each other through their bus. A couple of years before they met, José bought and rebuilt the bus to live in it, as he wanted to save money on rent. His family did not agree with his nomadic sensibilities. They thought it was a step down the socioeconomic ladder to live in a bus when he had the money to rent a perfectly fine condo in Monticello, New York. Eventually, their negativity dissuaded José from taking up residence in his Skoolie, so he decided to sell it. Cat Ovejas, a marketing professional, had wanted to purchase a Skoolie after she saw one converted into a retail store for a publicity stunt. She bought José’s bus, and eventually their continued dialogue on how to customize it to her needs evolved into friendship and, ultimately, love. They’ve been dating for a year and are currently working full-time on making a business of their bus "Apt84," named for its residential capacity and the then-ages of Cat’s two children. Their idea is to rent their highly Instagram-able bus out to retailers as a pop-up space for festivals and happenings, in addition to hosting wine tours around Long Island. They believe that the Skoolie movement is coming to the East Coast soon, and they “want to inspire people to think of other ways of living”, says José.
Cat and José live together in a beachfront house in Lindenhurst, NY, so they aren’t actually Skoolies themselves, although José sometimes wishes he could live the simple life on the road. He doesn’t need too many possessions, because “everything you own is a responsibility”. But Cat likes the comfortability of their home: “I like my stuff and my space,” she says. Still, they haven’t faced any criticism from the community. “We are honest about it,” says Cat, “we are not trying to hide it or anything. And none of the other Skoolies we’ve met has ever brought it up. Most of them think it’s cool that we’re spreading the word of their way of life.” Like the commercialization of “the Skoolie experience” permeates social media, Cat and José’s strictly-for-business version just represents the far end of the spectrum. The Skoolie movement was never really about anti-capitalism or communitarianism to begin with. It was less about changing the world; more about changing the individual lives of its adherents.
“It’s about flexibility,” says José Riveras on a different occasion, when he is parked at a beach in Lindenhurst, Long Island. He sees the growing popularity of Skoolies as a response to the economic landscape after the Great Recession of 2008. “If you have a Skoolie and you get fired, you still have a place to live. You can even bring your home with you, if you find work in a different state.” He is parked on the beach to attract attention and give the curious a tour and a chat, if they want to. A couple on a motorcycle rumbles past on the beach-side parking lot. The woman nearly breaks her neck, trying to take in all of the pastel-turquoise bus. Millennial women are especially intrigued by Skoolies, based on José’s experience and the demographics of his followers. “Many young people don’t want to have the big commitments of an expensive house and a car, when they see how the job market is,” he says. “They see the Skoolie and see something that is pretty comfortable, and beautiful, and could save them a lot of money.”
The biker couple has dismounted their Harley, and now they are approaching the bus. They were on their way “to share a joint at the beach” but postponed it when they saw the bus. “Whoa, this thing is so righteous, brother,” says Shumon ‘Doc’ Salah, a gentle, leather-clad giant with long, dark hair. “It’s so funny we should run into you today,” he booms. Inside the bus, he and his girlfriend Catherine are like kids in a candy store. “I’ve literally just liquidated all my earthly belongings,” he tells José, “and now I’m deciding if I should buy a van or a bus.” Like so many others interested in the movement, he is fed up with the humdrum existence of society and his job in construction. “I want to live for a living,” he says. (He eventually bought a bus.) José is smiling ear-to-ear. “That’s what’s cool about this job,” he says after they leave, “you only deal with happy, friendly people!” To José, it’s way more meaningful than the long-distance trucking he did before, even though it’s not quite the free-roaming life he once dreamed of.
On Long Island, Holly Williams lives up to his claim of strictly cheerful encounters. She’s shown him the work she’s already done, now they’re talking about the work ahead. She is very excited and occasionally exclaims how “happy she is to finally see another Skoolie in person”. She runs her fingers along every weld of "Apt84," pokes at every bolt in the roof, asks about the wiring for the solar panels, and compliments the rooftop deck. Cat is taking pictures of them bending under the chassis, so José can show Holly the welding around the water tank that Cat hired someone else to do. One of José’s oft-aired opinions, he finds the craftsmanship of those welds particularly subpar. “It’s just bad work,” he scoffs. Holly smiles even wider when she sees them. Before they say goodbye, she asks José about the lock a final time. “I actually bought it off of Amazon,” he says, “I got most of my stuff from there, it’s so cheap. You just have to know what to get.”