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A.J. Forget
January 31, 2023
140 views

Sweet Bea - The Bus Life Kitchen – A 2001 Chevrolet 3500 Van Front Mid Bus

What may seem completely unnatural to many, the idea of downsizing one’s life to fit in an old short bus was for us almost unavoidable. At the time of our first date, Ayana and I were both recently out of serious relationships. Neither of us was looking for anything, but a mutual friend set us up for a casual drink anyway. We were both also unknowingly working toward solo van life.

On that first date, after a couple of bottles of wine and some good conversation under a starry summer sky, Ayana asked me if I wanted to live in a van. I wasn’t sure if she was asking me if I wanted to live in a van with her, or whether our friend had simply let on that I was headed down the dirtbag trail. Instead of answering her question, I kissed her.

That must have been the right answer because only three months later, we were shopping for our first rig. When we were looking with only ourselves in mind, a cargo van seemed like the right choice, but the more we thought about trying to live and work full-time on the road with two of us and a puggle, the more we felt like a van might be a bit cramped. We wanted a nice, comfortable living space in which two people could easily work and relax without having to convert any of the furniture every day. Which led us to a short bus.

In many ways, the short bus is the best of both worlds. It drives easily like a cargo van and almost fits into a standard parking spot (22’ is just a little long), but it also has many of the benefits of a bus. For starters, the initial cost is low: our short bus only cost us about 20% of the going rate for a used cargo van at the time. 

The end of the first day of our build. All we managed were taking out a few seats and wall panels, but we were chuffed to have made it that far.

On top of that, the interior space is large enough to have a standard queen-size bed (with room for a clothing trunk at the foot of the bed), a five-foot-long couch with a table for eating or working, a decent kitchen, and even a wood stove, all in place all the time. Excluding the cab area, we are still under 100 square feet, but the added space, and especially width, made all the difference for us in being able to build a home that would fulfill all our dreams.

So, in October of 2018, after a few weeks of scouring the internet and checking out rigs, we brought home our Sweet Bea, a 2001 Midbus with a Chevy Express 6.5L Diesel van front. After sorting out a few mechanical issues, we started the build.

First day with our new bus!
Demo time! Cutting the thousands of rivets off to get the metal roofing down.
Adding the floor insulation. While Reflectix doesn’t do too much, we couldn’t spare any space. AJ’s head scrapes the ceiling even with such thin insulation.
Removing the rear heater.
The electrical plans were done the old-fashioned way, with scale drawings on graph paper.
The glow-up of Bea. We went simple (and cheap) with an acrylic DTM paint.

Neither of us had any construction experience going into this, so it was a learning process. It is not a large space, so each new task, be it plumbing, electrical, or whatever, is relatively small, but it also requires learning a whole new system. The first time through it takes a long time to wrap your head around the intricacies of, for example, wiring your rig. But learning these new skills is half the adventure of the build, and we came out the other side much more capable than we went in.

Sweet Bea interior back of the bus.
Interior front of Sweet Bea.
The cockpit area of our bus.

 As I mentioned before, our build has a queen-size bed, a tiny wood stove, and a 5-foot couch with a removable table on a swivel mount. It also features a 70-liter DC fridge, a 3-burner propane cooktop, a Nature’s Head composting toilet, and plenty of solar and batteries to power all of it, so that we can boondock for a couple of weeks at a time before we need to run to town for food and water.

Blue hour in the Superstition Mountains.

Perhaps the most unique feature of our build is the door. Sweet Bea, as you can see in the photos, no longer has the traditional glass bus doors. Having a safe passenger seat with a second seatbelt was important to us, so early in the process, we made some major modifications to the front. A welder friend of ours closed up the old bus doors and cut down the handicap door to a traditional 30” frame. This enabled us to bolt in a swiveling captain’s chair with a lap belt in what before would have been the entryway.

Cutting wood for the roof deck.
Metal brackets may be more common for roof decks on buses, but we thought an all-wood build would enhance the treehouse feel of our rig.
Building the Roof Deck.
Roof deck with a ladder up the side of the bus.
We may not have built it with dancing in mind, but the roof deck makes a decent dancefloor. Just keep an eye on the edge!
Enjoying the fruits of our labor. Taking in the Grand Canyon on our roof deck.
Dinette and composting toilet. It is a small living space!
Closeup of the dinette, featuring the removable walnut table. For our couch, we were able to find pre-made cushions designed for outdoor benches, which saved us a lot of time and money versus the other option of custom-sewn couch cushions.
The kitchen area on the curb side of the bus.

The roof deck is a feature that draws a lot of attention. From the first day we bought her home, Bea has always felt sort of like a clubhouse to us. That first afternoon, sitting in the bus out on the street drinking champagne, we felt like two kids sitting in an empty fort, dreaming of all the things we might create. 

We tried to embody that treehouse vibe in our build and especially in the design of our deck, making it all out of wood. I think that the ladder on the side is the icing on the cake. Climbing up those 2x4 rungs really transports you back to your childhood. Fortunately, as adults, we made sure that it was all quite sturdy, and that deck is probably capable of holding just as many folks as we could fit up there. Someday maybe we’ll try a hot tub.

While the deck was certainly not the most practical part of our build, for us it was one of those magical must-haves, and I can tell you that little in the world beats climbing up there at the end of the day to watch the sunset and share a cocktail and a few laughs with new friends.

In total, our build took around 18 months. We were both working at the time, so most weeks we were only able to put in one or two days. As the months wore on, it became clear that we were not going to meet our initial timeline, so we enlisted the help of Mike at Satsang Vanworks in Lafayette, Colorado to finish the carpentry. They do great work, check them out. 

While we would’ve loved to do everything ourselves, we learned while building the deck that neither of us is a particularly skilled carpenter, and trying to finish the interior likely would’ve taken us ten times as long as it took the skilled folks at Satsang. Given our eagerness to hit the road, we were happy for the help.

COVID-19 life movie hour. While getting sick in the bus is never fun, we were excellent at self-isolating while COVID-positive.

For those of you math whizzes out there, you might have already put together the timeline for when we finished the bus. Late 2018 plus 18 months equals… COVID. We held our bus-warming party and finished moving into the bus right as COVID-19 started spreading, which meant that we spent our first six months of bus life stationary in a Boulder, Colorado driveway. 

It was certainly not the most exciting start to this new phase of our lives, but it did give us a chance to take some weekend trips and work out a lot of the kinks before hitting the road full-time. Once things settled down a bit, we did finally hit the road in October of 2020, a little under two years after buying Sweet Bea.

New Year’s Eve at “the Hippie Hole.”
Camping on the sand at Surfside Beach.
Spooky Halloween movie night in Sedona.

Given that the country was still deep in the pandemic, we kept to ourselves for the first chunk of our lives on the road. We would go to town every couple of weeks to buy groceries and refill water, but mostly we just boondocked out on public land. We made a few nomadic friends and traveled as a tightly-knit pod, but it was certainly a more cautious, lonelier bus life than we had anticipated.

The Venardos Circus where Ayana worked.

Around the time that everyone was able to get vaccines and the world started opening up again, Ayana was offered a job working for the Venardos Circus. We thought we would be fools to pass up such an iconic vagabond experience, running away with the circus for a year, so we signed on. During our time with the circus, we traveled from Colorado to Florida and then up to Washington, quite literally from one corner of the USA to the other, with plenty of adventures along the way.

Sweet Bea at the circus.

Our bus life has been a little bit more work-oriented and a little bit lonelier than expected, with less aimless wandering, but that has opened the door for us to do some other exciting things, like writing a cookbook. During our time in the bus, I wrote The Buslife Kitchen, a cookbook for all bus-lifers, van-dwellers, car campers, and RV residents (as well as anyone else who likes eating really good food). 

The Buslife Kitchen Cookbook.
Inside look at the Buslife cookbook.

The book features over 100 recipes from more than 15 different cuisines, all of which can be cooked on a two or three-burner stove. It has everything from chilaquiles and steak au poivre to poke bowls and pumpkin pie—there’s even a recipe for a Thanksgiving turkey in there.

In addition to all those delicious recipes, the book features loads of beautiful photos, cooking tips, and stories from our adventures. If you want to make really good food in your tiny kitchen, or just live vicariously through our adventures, it’s a must-have. 

You can find more information online at TheBusLifeKitchen.com.

Bus-crafted custom silver jewelry The Sweet Bea Boutique.

While I spend my days cooking and writing, Ayana practices natural dreamwork and makes beautiful jewelry. Give her a follow on Instagram, and send her a message if you are interested in a dreamwork consultation or a custom piece of silver jewelry.

As you can tell, it has been a winding journey for us to find our way into this bus life, but having made it this far, it’s clear that this is what we were meant to do. Together, we built our dream home inside a tiny, 100-square-foot short bus and took to the road, not knowing exactly where it would lead. A few years later, what we have found is the freedom to live where and how we want. 

Not only do we get to choose what our backyard looks like each day, but more importantly this lifestyle has given us the time to practice the arts that we love, and the chance to try to make a living doing the work that we find most meaningful: connecting with people, helping people, and creating things of beauty.

We’ve said from the very start that we would keep living this bus life as long as there was enough money and as long as we were still having a good time. While both of those metrics have fluctuated over the years, be it the lows of a cold, winter wind storm or the anxiety and struggle of trying to make a living as an artist, right now there is no end in sight. Once you start living your life so authentically, spending your days where you want and doing what you love, it is hard to consider returning to the ways you left behind.

For now, and hopefully, for a good, long time to come, this little green bus is our house, and our home is the road.

Article written by A.J. Forget

A. J. Forget is a chef, writer, photographer, and self-proclaimed dilettante. He left a career as a wildland firefighter to pursue his lifelong passion for writing and his outlandish goal of modern nomadic life.

He is the author of The Buslife Kitchen, a cookbook focused on cuisine for the modern nomad (available on Amazon and at TheBusLifeKitchen.com), which he wrote while traveling full-time in a converted school bus with his partner, Ayana, herself a silversmith and dream worker. They have been on the road since 2020, traveling in pursuit of natural beauty, grand adventure, and the tastiest food out there.

You can find A. J. Forget’s work at TheBusLifeKitchen.com or
on Instagram at @the.buslife.kitchen.

Ayana can be found on Instagram at @letsliveeverywhere.

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