A Book About Bus Life (An Excerpt from “Since We Woke Up: Lessons from Two Years of Living in a School Bus”)

Editor’s Note: This is a short excerpt from Tawny McVay’s new book “Since We Woke Up: Lessons from Two Years of Living in a School Bus.” Follow us as this family of four learns how to navigate the road and bus life.

We had a rough plan for that first trip – no timelines, no set routes, just destinations we wanted to arrive at, and a loose idea of how to get there. The basic itinerary was a large circle through most of the Western states, hitting national parks and points of interest along the way. We giggled to ourselves a lot that the first week, all four of us somewhat stunned, after all the planning and talking and building, to be actually living it.

Every ordinary moment seemed extraordinary back then – taking turns getting ready for the day in our little bathroom, making dinner, and watching TV together at night. The miles rolled by as we checked firsts off our list. Filling up the water tanks, emptying the toilet, pulling up at a store to get groceries; menial tasks were suddenly precious and momentous occasions to be celebrated.

We learned almost everything we needed to know about what to expect when living on a bus that first month on the road, both beautiful and tragic. That we would find magic in unexpected places and potholes where we expected smooth roads. That life would be a careful balance, the unpredictability of a home on wheels weighed against the natural rhythm we fell into on the road. Work and school carefully juggled with driving and new places to explore. It’s second nature to us now, but back then every day was an experiment in what created chaos or peace.

Outside view of our bus, Oliver.

This bus was featured in our November 2019 issue. Click HERE to read.

Driving was a huge one. We learned early on the number of miles our tires rolled over in any given day directly correlated to the overall morale inside the bus by the end of it. Long days spent pushing toward a particular destination ended with a bus full of cranky people glowering at each over a hastily prepared dinner. In the early days, we had destination fever, always pushing toward the next circle on the map.

We quickly adjusted our mentality and realized we needed to be more about the journey itself and how we were getting there over hopping from place to place as quickly as possible. Setting a limit on the amount of driving hours we allowed ourselves on any given day made a huge difference to the quality of our travel experience.

While our pace slowed significantly, creating this boundary showed us what we’d been missing in our haste to check locations off a list. Instead of heading out toward a fresh destination hundreds of miles away focused only on that outcome and dealing with miles between as a hassle, we were forced to examine those roads as part of the plan. With only a few hours of driving possible on any given day, knowing we’d never make the next checkpoint within our allotted limit, we started scouting out and finding stops along the way that sometimes turned out to be better than the well-known ones on our lists.

More often than not, the places we stumbled on by accident after implementing the “no more than three hours of driving” rule turned out to be our favorites. I can’t count the number of times we stayed parked a day or two longer in one of those accidental spots because they were so perfect.

And it wasn’t just the best way to navigate on a map we had to learn, it was how to navigate our new living situation as four people coexisting together in two hundred and fifty square feet of space. The early teenage years are tricky enough to manage in a regular home, let alone confining said teens into a small space with their parental units, the perceived cause of all wrongs.

Simply getting ready in the morning, and sharing a tiny bathroom, required a whole new routine to be created to accommodate everyone being prepared for the day without major incident. I can tell you this – personalities take up space in a way you don’t notice in a larger home. The annoying little ticks, the irritating habits, every way in which their mode of operating grates against yours is exponentially amplified in a smaller home.

When I think of the damage we’ve avoided inflicting on the other, however, by being forced to talk instead of yell and storm off, the ways in which we’ve been able to grow entwined instead of simply parallel, it’s worth every single ounce of ego I sacrificed on the altar of bus life concessions. When you’re spending every single moment with the members of your family in a tiny home, you learn very quickly to tidy up the messy parts of your personality so it requires less space.

Front living area of the bus.
Inside the bus. View of front to rear.

Living tiny didn’t just come with downsizing our possessions. We also had to let go of some pieces of ego that didn’t fit neatly into the bus. And in the same way, we didn’t actually need walk-in closets full of clothes and a whole drawer of Tupperware containers, we slowly found we didn’t need the parts of ourselves that were easily offended or willing to sacrifice an otherwise peaceful night together in the name of anger.

Ely and I would have future fights, but with the forced closeness we learned to conduct them more fairly. When you can’t run away, talking it out is really the only option left outside of the silent treatment, and trust me when I say you can only ignore someone for so long when you have to move aside to let them pass you in the hallway every ten minutes. I sometimes wonder what might have happened to my relationship with my children, had we continued to live in our old three-story house.

I have nothing with which to compare it, but I can’t imagine we would be as close as we are now, after spending almost every day together for the last four years. Our proximity demanded better communication and a deeper understanding of each other. One thing I can say without a doubt – bus life changed our family dynamic for the better, and I’m closer to my children and Mike now than I likely would have had the chance to be in our old life.

Then there’s the basics, the stuff you take for granted in sticks and bricks home like having water for a shower or a toilet that must be emptied. You learn very quickly in bus life that anticipating issues and taking steps to prevent them is ten times more effective than simply hoping they don’t arise. At first, you take things as they come. For instance, waiting until the water starts running low before looking for a spot to refill your tanks.

Then you spend a day or two with only a few gallons of water left while you frantically drive around trying to find a place a to refill, and you learn to start scouting water at every stop, topping off your tanks any time there’s an opportunity to do so instead of waiting for them to be near empty. You adopt a checklist that takes place every time you arrive at a new place or leave an old one that includes mechanical and system checks, hoping to spot problems before they actually occur.

Even then, with all the preventative measures in the world, you’ll overflow your toilet or leave the bus lights on and kill your battery or have to start rationing water because you missed filling the tanks at the last stop. Every life has tradeoffs. The difference between content and unrest in our decisions is whether they’re worth the flip side.

I had kids early in my life, while my friends were going to college and living their young lives with no diapers and car seats to worry about. The tradeoff is that now, as those same peers have young kids and full-time jobs and softball schedules to keep track of, my kids are about to graduate and I will be free as a bird too, say, go turn a bus into a tiny home and spend a few years driving around the US, freelancing as I go.

Enjoying the tiny life.

I’m content with this arrangement, having given up some partying and fun in my early life to essentially be able to retire early from the grind because the flip side is the less desirable option to me. I may have had some fun by holding off on kids and marriage seventeen years ago, but to now be able to have that fun as a more self-possessed, financially responsible, and confident woman with a man like Mike beside me? Totally worth the tradeoff, in my eyes.

One of the those “that can’t possibly be real” moments.

In the same way, bus life isn’t all sunsets in beautiful locations and drinking coffee on the roof deck. Sometimes it’s scrounging water and running out at midnight to pee in the woods because you forgot to empty your toilet the night before. And within that, I’m content. Magically, deliciously, absolutely content. Because I will happily empty a urine tank or deal with mechanical mishaps if only to experience even a handful of the beautiful moments we’ve had.

The freedom to roam and disappear off-grid when the mood hits, waking up to desert sunrises and falling asleep to the rush of the ocean, spending days exploring and evenings cooking dinner and reading safe in our little home in the wild; the beautiful parts of bus life have been worth every single inconvenience we’ve encountered along the way.

And there are so many beautiful moments, the ones you see on social media and think “that can’t possibly be real”. They are, I promise. Ones I can’t even adequately describe because words just fall too far short of how incredible they are. Parked in a clearing on a hill in the high desert forest, sitting on our roof deck while the sky lit up in brilliant shades of fuchsia and gold and a herd of elk bugled in every direction around us.

Taking the small winding path from our front door down through the trees to a hidden beach as the sun rose and the tide rushed out to walk among the rocky cliffs covered in thousands of brightly colored starfish and scuttling crabs the ocean left behind in its mad rush out. Alone in the vast sands of the desert, billions of stars overhead dancing to the lonesome tune of the coyotes howling in the distance. Endless cups of coffee by streams and oceans, under sunrises and sun-sets, on our deck, and while listening to rain on the roof.

And it isn’t even totally about the far-flung and remote destinations. Windows down and a breeze carrying our favorite road trip tunes through the bus. Potlucks in our tiny living room with other road lifers we met up with. Visiting museums and national parks with our kids and returning to our home in the parking lot to eat and watch a movie together. Driving our house right up to the grocery store to have groceries delivered.

Not every moment in this bus has been beautiful. There have been tears and frustrations and setbacks and sadness. But bus life as a whole, the freedom and experiences it contains, the journey it’s taken us on, absolutely is.

To order this book and to read it in its entirety, click HERE.

By Tawny McVay

Once upon a time, Tawny McVay was a gym owner and fitness guru who spent her days yelling at people to do more burpees and deadlifting her way through life’s problems. After a decade of non-stop grind, she and her husband Mike realized they wanted more life lived outside the walls of a gym and in the great wide world.

They sold everything, converted a school bus into a tiny home, and started traveling full-time, documenting their travels on social media under the name Since We Woke Up. Today, three years and thousands of miles later, they now split their time between traveling and building a small homestead on the land they park the bus on, a journey documented in her first book, also named Since We Woke Up.

When she isn’t driving the bus or writing, you’ll find her in her garden talking to plants, on their rooftop deck enjoying the sunsets with a cup of coffee in hand, or with a plane ticket clutched in her hand, ready for a new adventure.

For more information visit their website:

https://sincewewokeup.com/

You can also follow them on

Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.

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