For some modern vagabonds, the best mobile home isn't the one you buy from the factory—it's the one you build from a secondhand public transportation.
There is something about a bus that is tied intrinsically to the romance of the American road—the sleek Greyhound humming through the night, the yellow school bus rattling with lunchboxes and children. But it takes a certain eccentric, self-reliant type to look at one and think: With an arc welder, some plumbing and a propane stove, I can turn this pre-owned tube of steel into the ultimate traveling home. When I was a river guide living out of a station wagon on loosely regulated public land, I envied friends who dwelled in buses, the heirs not just of Ken Kesey but of Daniel Boone. For my money, no other vehicle more loudly and clearly announces, "I'm sticking it to the man."
So when I drove to Rickreall, Ore., a hot strip of two-lane asphalt bathed in whiffs of farm manure outside Salem, I was prepared to find some riotous outpost of Merry Prankster anarchism. I'd been dispatched to the local fairgrounds to cover the annual Bus'N USA Convention, the nation's premier gathering of converted buses. But as soon as I arrived at the venue—a bland hectare of gravel bookended by a mess hall and a rec room—I was greeted by a senior citizen with a waxed moustache, toting two terriers in his golf cart. "Hop in," he said with a folksy grin that was more Kiwanis luncheon than Kool-Aid acid test. "We'll get you set up with a name badge."
My host zipped down the aisles between luxury buses. Absent were ramshackle hotboxes bedecked with kaleidoscopic murals of unicorns and Jerry Garcia. In their place were neat rows of shimmering titans, all curved glass and gleaming steel, monuments to the prosperity and industrial might of our times.
Few here were rebel mechanics with mad dreams of gypsy lives off the grid. No, they'd simply shelled out as much as a quarter-million dollars for a lavish vessel from a showroom. Over the weekend I toured a number of these mobile mansions. The owners perched on cream leather sofas, the ice cubes in their gin and tonics making a satisfying clink, while gawkers like me padded slack-jawed over the sheets of clear plastic that protected the white carpet.
These were not my people. I was looking for the dreamers, the cranks: Walt Whitman with a handyman jack, jamming gears toward the silent sun with its beams full-dazzling. I love a beautiful machine, but mostly for the places it takes me, and in my mind the spirit that unites bus dwellers is not the swoon of luxury but freedom alchemized through ingenuity, thrift and adventure.
So when I saw a hand-painted red, white and blue school bus putt into the lot and take a berth on the periphery, I was elated. Its owner, Ron Rutledge, had a shock of gray hair, sideburns and a goatee, and jeans hoisted up by suspenders. "The view from the driver's seat is unreal," he told me.
An Army veteran, truck driver and retired construction safety inspector, Rutledge had been thinking for years about buying an RV. Figuring that the freedom of the road might be severely hampered by a steep mortgage payment, he instead bought a 1981 Crown school bus that had served two decades in the Bellevue (Washington) School District.
Working largely with scrap trim and lumber from construction sites, he built cabinets and shelves and installed a stove, oven and refrigerator, as well as a TV, DVD player and stereo. Rutledge pretty much figured things out as he went: To lay the tile on the kitchen floor, he simply took a morning class at his local Home Depot. He picked up a compact Dickinson marine diesel furnace from a boat owner on eBay.
Rutledge's new home retained some flavor of the old bus. He left the sliding windows intact, tinting them for privacy. The cockpit, with its levered door and rudimentary control panel, is original. Anyone over 6 ft. tall might bump his head on the riveted ceiling, and in the bedroom there's a hump in the floor where the carpet rises over the wheel well.
Whenever he gets the urge, Rutledge drops $100 in the tank and takes off, mostly around Washington and Oregon. He says the noisiest part of driving is the "wind chimes" of all his steel utensils hanging over the sink: "If that gets too loud I just lean over and turn up the music."
That night I had dinner at the mess hall—a picnic grill of chicken and sausages. In the morning seminars were offered, but the soporific titles ("All About Fasteners and Rivets," "Installing a Diesel Generator in a Hush Box") convinced me that my time would be better spent cruising the far reaches of the fairgrounds, where, by coincidence or choice, the idiosyncratic vehicles congregated. There I found the Nobody II—a maroon box too square to be a bus, yet far beefier than any RV. More than anything, it resembled the Urban Assault Vehicle from the movie Stripes.
I asked the owner, John Champ, what sort of coach he'd started with. "Well," he said, "I didn't start with any coach." A retired Air Force mechanic from Clovis, Calif., Champ and his wife, Carol, first began driving RVs up into the Sierra foothills in 1962. Problem was, he said, "They all fell apart." After one breakdown, a dealer informed them that such vehicles weren't actually supposed to be used every weekend. So Champ converted a 30-year-old coach into an RV; after two decades, even it rusted out. At that point, he said, he decided to start from scratch.
Champ had never built a vehicle before, but having worked on everything from lawnmowers to locomotives, he felt he was ready for a challenge. He envisioned a mobile dream home, and he drew its footprint with masking tape on the floor of his shop. Then he laid out rods of steel square tubing and began to weld, leaving ample space for panoramic windows. To arch the roof bows, he built his own steel bender. The resulting skeleton was 43 ft. long, 12 ft. high and 812 ft. wide (the legal limit), and Champ mounted the front and rear suspension of a '98 Freightliner semi on it. To that he added a Detroit Diesel 6V92 with a Jake Brake and aftercooler, as well as a five-speed Allison automatic transmission.
The only items that Champ salvaged from his rusted-out bus were the spring hangers and the identification plate. So as far as the DMV is concerned, Champ's creation is a 1951 GMC. Yearly cost of registration: $55.
Near the Nobody II, Byron Belmont of Eugene, Ore., had parked a genuine GMC—a 1962 passenger bus custom painted with panels of grays and blues. When Belmont—a one-time helicopter mechanic, railroad brakeman and potato farmer—bought the 41-seat Trailways coach 20 years ago, it had been running between Texas and Oklahoma. Determined to make the bus taller, Belmont whacked the structural ribs with a Sawzall, hoisted the roof and then re-joined the ribs with 8-in. bars. Of course, this required buying a welder. When I asked if he knew much about welding at the outset, he said, "I do now."
To combat summer heat, Belmont created an 8-in. attic between the new roof and the ceiling and installed a draft fan to pull air out of the cabin, keeping a constant circulation of cooler air overhead. He then started on the bus's interior, first plumbing a bathroom and kitchen, next wiring all the components, using marine gauges for monitoring and switches. He installed wood floors in the kitchen and marble in the bathroom, and custom-fit all the closets and cabinets to the peculiar curves of the rounded ceiling. He spared no expense, using only oak and black cherry for the wood trim. The kitchen is nicer than those in many people's homes, with a four-burner propane stove, fridge, microwave, dishwasher, built-in blender and icemaker. "It's an investment of love more than money," Belmont told me. "Everything's personal to it. And each bus has its own personality."
Artist Joni Goodman fills her 1973 GM Greyhound with details such as stained-glass windows and teak trim.
We were sipping Black Velvet under a shade canopy when a purple rig pulled into the berth beside us. Byron and his wife Joanne jumped out of their chairs to greet its owner, Joni Goodman. A pretty blond woman with a deep suntan and dangling silver earrings, she had the warm twinkling eyes of someone who'd spent a lot of winters in Baja California.
Goodman's bus has become her lifestyle. In 1989 she and her husband bought the 1973 GM Buffalo, filled the empty hull with raw materials and headed up to Alaska. A year later, they'd converted the Greyhound's interior with solid teak paneling, a roomy kitchen and a custom bathroom.
When Goodman's husband died, she learned to drive the bus herself, naming it the Strayhound. It wasn't easy being a widow in a world of couples, and Goodman remembers just one other single woman on the tour—that is, the migratory herd of RV and bus owners that roams Arizona and California in the winter and the Pacific Northwest in the summer.
"We'd drink wine and cry on each other's shoulder and curse mechanics," Goodman said. She regretted not having learned more about how buses worked when she was younger, so she started a crash course, reading the owner's manuals for diesel engines and other repair books. "I had to know at least enough to fool the mechanics into thinking I knew what they were saying."
For most of a decade she drifted back and forth between Alaska and Mexico. Then, in 1998, she piloted the Strayhound to an RV jamboree in Oregon. In pulled a rig hauling a double-decker trailer with a jeep and a Hobie Cat. The boat's name: Straycat. The driver's name was Rick Fox, a woodworker with gray locks flowing to his shoulders, a real gold nugget lashed to his throat and gemstones in both ears. Within nine months she and Fox were married.
The two have been traveling together for nine years, with occasional layovers in Coos Bay, Ore. Goodman has driven the Alaska Highway 42 times. At first it took Fox a while to take ownership of the vehicle—"You don't just jump in and take over a woman's bus," Goodman says—but since then he's proved an ideal partner. Fox installed a Greasel conversion kit: The Strayhound now runs on straight vegetable oil from the disposal bins of diners. They've also installed solar panels on the roof, which can send as much as 24 amps into a bank of six marine batteries, enabling them to run their electronics without having to fire up the generator.
I spent the evening drinking whiskey with them and the Belmonts, watching the sun drop into the Oregon farmland. After the convention, Goodman and Fox were heading back on the road. Fox is allowed to drive, she concedes, but most of the time as they coast down the highway it's Goodman in the driver's seat, chugging with 375 hp into the horizon, leaving a scent of French fries behind.