My new book on traveling in the bus is nearing completion, but I wanted to see what you all thought first. Here’s some of the first chapter. Let me know what you think! But only if it’s nice…
Life on the Bus: From Alaska to Hawaii and Everywhere in Between
I woke up chilled, but not because I was very cold but more because I could feel a push of cold on top of my head. For a moment, I thought I was still in our cozy Alaska cabin, so I couldn’t think why I would feel that. And then I popped my head up and, faced with a frosty window, I remembered: we are in the school bus and we are in the Yukon Territory. Hence the frosty window.
I scraped away some of the frost with my fingernail and peered out onto the snowy ground before me. It was the first week of October. We were exactly one week into our journey and it was already snowy and cold. We had hoped to get the bus out of the North before snow, but we had been fighting snowstorms all the way from Anchorage since Kiara’s birthday on October 3rd.
We had to stop at Eureka Pass our first day out because the snow was so thick we were worried the bus couldn’t handle the roads. We had winter tires on the bus, but not studded ones.
John lit the fire in the kerosene heater – the only heater we found that could fight the cold through the uninsulated walls of the bus without needing firewood. He opened the bus doors and went outside to make coffee. The quick breeze of the open doors hit me even way in the back in the lofted “master suite.” Anais, our littlest one, just a little over a year old, snuggled under the covers more.
I’m not known for being an “up and at ‘em” morning type. I’m usually slow to get up. I like to drink a cup of coffee or two, read the headlines, look at email and then maybe even type a bit before moving along. Fortunately, in the bus, all of this can be accomplished by just sitting up. Except for a bathroom run. Hopping off the bed, I picked my way around the three children sleeping in the fold out futon, jumped over the sleeping teenager on the air mattress in the front of the bus and found a shoe or two so I could go outside to pee.
We have an “inside” bathroom – essentially a camper potty that we empty once a day – but I like to leave that for the littles, emergencies and middle of the night usage. Having that inside potty is extremely useful when traveling on long stretches of road where dashing into the woods could mean an encounter with a bear! Although it’s a little embarrassing when nature calls too quickly in the middle of the night and you risk waking everyone up with the sounds of too many tacos the night before.
We’ve been on the road for about a week now – three if you count the two weeks we “practiced” living together in a bus in a county campground in Soldotna. We figured a trial run was necessary but we didn’t want to do it near our cabin – it would be too easy to go back and get things or just go home if things got rough.
The decision to leave the cabin had been a tough one for me. I loved Alaska. No, I mean LOVED. Well, LOVE. We had moved to a cabin in the woods so I could try and run the Iditarod. Unfortunately, having eight kids – six still at home – and training and running an Iditarod team became a financial burden almost impossible to overcome.
John and I almost lost our marriage over the finances of it all – the stress on him to provide for all of us had become too much and between homeschooling kids and training dogs, I didn’t have a lot of time left to help earn a living. There were times when our tiny cabin was filled with anxiety and his growing resentment of me and the dogs – and times when I just stayed outside in the dog yard because I didn’t want to go in and deal with it.
While it was my favorite time ever – it was no one else’s. I decided to give up my dream to take on an adventure we could all enjoy. We picked the bus. But leaving our homestead and sending the doggers to live with other families nearly killed me. I cried so hard when we left, but I knew it was the best thing for everyone else. Probably for me too. I’m still waiting to feel like that’s true.
Our first night in the bus was spent in the parking lot at the Walmart in Kenai. Kenai was about a two hour trip for us from our cabin in the Caribou Hills, so driving out there and back to the cabin wasn’t really practical. We decided to outfit the bus on the fly and we started there. We didn’t know we were allowed to stay there overnight, but someone said “go for it” and so we did. We had spent so much time there that day outfitting the bus with camping equipment, the futon, and the bed in the back, that it was awesome to not have to leave. We all settled in for the night – enjoying free Walmart WiFi even – when an alarming truth beheld us. We had not purchased curtains for the windows.
I’m not sure why we didn’t think of it. Perhaps living in a remote cabin for over a year and having only to worry about moose and bear seeing in the windows had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, the Walmart lights came on, the sky went dark, and we realized we had a problem. The trouble was – how were we going to outfit a school bus with curtains fast? It’s not like you can screw in those little curtain rods like you can in a regular window. If you’ve been in a school bus, you know that the tops are metal – in fact – it’s all metal.
That led me to my brilliant idea. Buy those magnetic cup hooks and cut small button-style holes in the tops of sheets. We went inside Walmart (on a sidenote, it’s handy to have a Walmart in your backyard on the first day of an expedition) and found the magnets and then some sheets. We figured we could cut the sheets in half lengthwise (since bus windows are short) and purchase about half as many. Unfortunately, Walmart didn’t have a lot of the magnet hook things, so we really had to stretch them across the bus. It worked though and with a little diligence and lot of adjusting, we got all of the windows covered.
Well, at least for a little while. Nothing like waking up in the middle of the night out of a dead sleep with the blare of a Walmart parking lot light in your face because one person rolled over and didn’t just take out one curtain, but the whole row of curtains on that side of the bus. By the time we got to British Columbia weeks and weeks later, falling curtains was pretty normal and lent to a ginormous, collective “UGH…” through the bus in the middle of the night.
We didn’t know about Walmarts allowing campers when we first got there, but I’m so glad we learned. Without Walmarts, though, we would not have had a place to stay many, many times throughout our journey. But on that first night, we didn’t quite know what to expect. As we were quickly learning, most of the RV parks and campgrounds in the Kenai-Soldotna area closed down after Labor Day. We ended up staying in the Walmart parking lot for three days. This was not nearly as bad as it sounds, especially since we were learning a lot of the nuance of living in a school bus. The Kenai Walmart also has a lot of grassy space around it and a little pond, so the kids played soccer and ran around a bit while we built in various features to the bus and figured out where we wanted everything and how it all should work.
If you can, picture a regular, old-time school bus in your head. You walk through the funky folding front doors (which I wanted to keep) and you are greeted with the driver’s seat and that pole that goes over the driver’s head. You turn left and follow that rubbery mat like walkway (which I also kept for a while), and head down through the seats to the back emergency door. Now, if you take all of the seats out (which we did), you have one big empty bus.
John bought some 2 x 4’s and plywood and fashioned a lofted master bed in the back. We didn’t have it up against the back door, however, because we want what we came to call our “garage space.” We basically leave about three feet between the back of the bed and the back door – which still sounds the alarm if you go through it while the bus is on. The garage space is where we keep essentials for bus maintenance. It’s like the utility room of the bus. We keep the generator there, John’s toolbox, spare bus parts, tire inner tubes, gas cans, water jugs and a spare bus tire. Of course, eventually other things would find their way back there – like spare puzzle pieces, paper (always with the paper with my kids), and those pesky curtain magnet hooks which no one thinks to look for until it’s getting dark and we need to put the curtains up.
I decide that the best way to keep all of our stuff together is to assign everyone a bin. Before we left the cabin, we donated or sold everything we no longer needed – including extra winter gear, dog stuff, kitchen gadgets and more. We were down to one bin for everyone and a few extra toy and homeschool bins. It was mid-September and already getting very chilly at night – even down on the Kenai – and so we made sure to keep our winter gear available.
I asked John to make some shelves over the wheel wells of the bus (the place where the tires pop up into the floor and are covered with bus flooring). That way, I can stack the bins on a flat surface and they will travel easier. He did and it works amazingly well. Everyone has their day-to-day clothes in a big, clear bin. And if you have anything very special that you like to keep — like Jack and his 32 different SLAM magazines and the hunting knife he made out of a moose antler and an old saw blade – then you better seal it up in your bin.
We realized that we would probably need a heater of some sort since we didn’t want to run the engine in the bus all night. I took the recommendation of a friend and purchased a propane “Mr. Buddy” heater. She claimed that it heated her small hunting cabin without a problem. WRONG. It was only September and the first morning in the bus found our children huddled like poor orphans around the heater, desperately trying to get warm before the sun came up and heated up the inside of the bus. This was one of many trials and errors.
We decided to return Mr. Buddy and instead purchased a large kerosene heater like the one my dad used to have in the barn when I was a kid. I was concerned about carbon monoxide poisoning, and so we always kept the window directly behind it cracked a bit. You can heat up a 200 square foot bus really fast with a big kerosene heater…but little did I know that ahead of us were days when we’d have it running all of the time and ice would still form on the windows and under the beds.
So that’s the back of the bus. In the middle, we placed a futon bed for the three middle kids. Jack, 9, Kiara, 6, and Seamus, 5, would all sleep together in a large futon that we could fold back into a couch in the middle of the day. Under that we kept board games and other books in bins. But the clearance wasn’t great, so not a lot could fit under the futon – especially since you have to fold it back out at night. It is a really great space for collecting one sock from each pair, random shoes and grunge in general, though.
Our kitchen is kind of an inside/outside affair. Because we have so many of us sleeping in what is really a glorified metal tent, we decided not to install a kitchen the way many tiny home school bussers do. Instead, we have a series of milk crates that we placed behind the driver seat of the bus. While we are “in camp,” the milk crates serve as kitchen cabinets. We put cereal, fruit, oatmeal, cans of whatever inside. On top we have a piece of shelving that we use as a “counter.” It is there that I can prepare small meals for the kids – sandwiches and the like, and we can keep our coffee fixings and other items.
Coffee – and all of the other meals – are made on a small two-burner Coleman camp stove that we keep in the back of the Yukon (my truck). We have a camp style percolator that we heat up and then move to the kerosene heater in the bus to keep warm. We can drink coffee while kids wake up and have breakfast. Depending on the weather, John either sits outside in a lawn chair or inside near the heater to do his job as a computer programmer. We have a cellular MiFi device for when we are “off grid” and we try to use free WiFi services when we are in town. Of course, we make sure we are customers of any place that offers free WiFi.
Here in the Yukon Territory, on this particularly cold morning, it appears John will not be using a lot of WiFi. But we knew that he probably wouldn’t be working during these couple of travel days as we move down to Whitehorse. We plan to stay in Whitehorse for a couple of weeks and allow John to catch up on his work while the kids and I explore the town and take a break from traveling. We love to travel, but we don’t always love to keep driving.
So, instead of just driving all of the time, we have worked out a schedule that allows us to travel to a new town over the weekend – driving maybe 300-500 miles at a time, and then stopping for a week or maybe two, depending on how much we like where we are.
As we entered the Yukon Territory, we had to cross the border between Alaska and Canada. We made a silly error that we didn’t think was a big deal, but when you’re at a border crossing, becomes – well, a moderately big deal.
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