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Annette McNamara
May 30, 2023
88 views

The Beautiful Strength Bus A 2001 Thomas SAF Skoolie

Hello, my name is Annette McNamara, and I am the founder of the nonprofit BeautifulStrength.org. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that focuses on using photography, specifically portraiture, to celebrate the resilience of the human spirit. Our goal is that everyone has a chance to be seen, heard, valued, and loved. So, what does that have to do with a bus conversion… well, everything!

I have been obsessed with the nomad life for as long as I could remember. As a kid in the 80s, I wanted to run away with the circus, or even just hop on the train that came through my small Iowa town just to see where it went. I spent countless hours looking at pictures of people I didn’t look anything like in my Grandma’s National Geographic magazines; longing to visit them and make new friends all over the world.

After one semester in college, I hopped on a Greyhound bus with two bags of clothes and $200 and moved to Southern California. I have never been afraid to leap into something and make it happen. My cars have always been my escape to freedom and a four-hour road trip just to see something cool or have lunch with a friend has been a common occurrence throughout my life. I have moved to three different states without knowing anyone and I have a serious “problem” with saying “yes” to any adventure.

So, all of that said, when I started the Beautiful Strength project in September 2018 at the very first photo shoot I said, “I think it would be awesome to make this mobile,” I knew at that moment I was going to make it happen. I had absolutely no idea how I was going to do that, but usually, if I put my mind to something, I get it done. And when people tell me I can’t do something or that something I am doing is wrong or stupid, then there is a 110% chance that I will MOST DEFINITELY do it.

In July 2019, my tiny house dreams fast-tracked after I went to a United Tiny House Festival in Nashville, Tennessee. There I met my type of crazy! Nomads living this amazing life in buses, RVs, and vans. I built several strong friendships from this festival that became key to my obtaining my very own bus less than two months later! The time was right for me to jump on board!

I found my bus after a few late-night dream sessions searching Google. One day a guy called me and asked if I was still interested in the bus he had. After figuring out which bus it was out of the various ones I  had clicked on, I found that the bus was in Cookeville, Tennessee less than 45 minutes from Nashville. So, my adventurous self and the $500 I had, took a road trip.

Tennessee in November 2019.
Tennessee in November 2019.
Giving Atticus a hug after he would not start, but it all came down to a 10-amp fuse. Once replaced he was good to go.

This bus was perfect! It was a Thomas bus, so I knew it would have more headroom than some other bus brands. It had a wheelchair lift, which is super important to the photo project I am doing because I want everyone to be able to get onto the bus, including wheelchair users and people who are unable to climb stairs. It also only had 119,000 miles on the speedometer and he started right up.

Now the biggest challenge was the $10,000 price tag! Luckily the seller really needed to get it off their lot and they loved the project I was doing, so they dropped the price to $6,500.  It was still $6,000 more than I had, and no I was not expecting to buy a bus for $500, that is just all I had when I was window dreaming.

I asked them if they would be willing to hold the bus for two months for me if I put $2,000 down. And they did! Except I didn’t even need a month. I photographed two weddings and a few senior portrait sessions and I walked back in a month later and paid cash! Including tax and title!

I had no idea what the heck I was doing bringing a 40’ beast back to Nashville. Where was I going to park it? How was I going to demo it? How was I going to build it into a fancy living space and make my dream  a reality? No clue! But I knew I wanted it and I was going to make it happen.

Thankfully my friend Tony allowed me to park my bus in his business lot and he helped me gut it and figure out a few problem areas I needed to address. The bus was fully gutted and ready to build a few months later. Unfortunately, a power steering issue came about, and we had to put a pause on the build and get it to the mechanic.

The bus was diagnosed with a $3,000 repair price ticket… of which I did not have, but low and behold a company I worked for thirteen years and had not worked for in over eight years sent me an early retirement payout. $19,000 couldn’t come at a better time, and the bus was able to be repaired. While at the mechanic, Nashville was hit by a large tornado, and the bus’s first mission after being repaired was to bring relief supplies from Murfreesboro back to Nashville. I knew this bus was made to do big things!!

And then of course March of 2020 rolled around and COVID hit. Nothing like being a freelance photographer and having all of my corporate clients cancel their photoshoots. Shoots that I had planned to be the financial support for the build.

So instead of being depressed and doing nothing, I partnered with another bus friend who offered their skills to me and we moved the wheelchair ramp from the back of the bus to the center to open up the studio space. Talk about a quarantine project! Next, we sealed the floors, resealed every window, patched up the ceiling, and put the bus back together.

Learning new skills, such as electrical
(May 2020).
Learning new skills, such as electrical (May 2020).

Off to Georgia, we went! I spent the next four months working nonstop on the bus. 10-15 hours a day learning electricity and plumbing, woodworking, and a wide variety of skill sets I had no clue how to do.      I’m very grateful for Kurtis and Dayana as well as Denise and Darcy who made this time bearable and gave me the assistance, I needed to transform the bus.

Then came along Chris and Daniel, who took my stick figure drawings and turned my amateur artwork into real life. Custom cabinets, a pop-up table, and a Murphy bed that converted into a photo studio brought my vision to life. Beautiful Strength was now officially mobile!!

The bus was ready to go… not really, but ready for me to move in! I still didn’t have solar, a shower, a functioning way to refrigerate food, no heat, and no way to run the A/C unless plugged into shore power. But I was determined to get on the road! I really wanted to prove that this nonprofit was amazing and could work anywhere people are… everywhere!

The goal date for moving in was April 2021 so I could swing by Iowa to see my family and friends before heading out west to Vanfest and conquering the Northeast. I really wanted to take this project to every   state within a year. I didn’t quite make that goal, but I would say covering the entire U.S. (obviously not Hawaii) in under two years is still going to be quite the accomplishment.

There is so much that happened between April 2021 and now. Like I have lived 100 lifetimes and been able to do so many things that some people only dream about. I have been able to touch, feel, react, and learn from first-hand experiences. All of which I am extremely grateful for. 

I have driven the bus over 30,000 miles. We have gone across mountains (terrifying), flat lands (wind is no fun), been on eight-lane freeways (big trucks do not care) to barely wide enough country roads. The bus has been off-roading on BLM land, to the heart of major cities like New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

I’ve had four breakdowns: 

1. A Turbo hose blew in Idaho 

2. A water pump failure in California

3. A fan clutch failure in Arizona 

4. A coolant hose failure in Maine 

Needless to say, I have an army of support that I have met as well as lots of online assistance from friends and family.

The bus has been to all the lower 48 states as well as a wee bit of Canada!      Over 1,500 portraits have been taken in the bus and we have been honored to be part of some incredible stories, moments, events, and experiences. This bus, this nonprofit, and this adventure continue to challenge me in a way I’ve never even thought possible as well as every day I learn more about bus life and nomadic living, the earth, and that humanity is in fact mostly good.

Article written by Annette McNamara

In September 2018, long-time photographer Annette McNamara had an idea for her own photoshoot. Growing up she struggled with her self-image and allowed others’ negative words to affect how she saw herself. Beautiful Strength was born out of a need to say those struggles out loud and finally accept herself for who she was. No filters, no Photoshop, just her and her words.

That one idea blossomed into an initial shoot that consisted of 45 people, and from there it launched a wonderful ripple effect. Little did she know that throwing this positivity out into the world would connect to a bigger purpose… the need for ALL people, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religion, political views, economic status, or whatever… to be heard and have a chance to connect with others. By telling our stories, adding some humor, and being honest about how difficult life can be and how resilient we can overcome what life throws at us, we all can connect and become better human beings.

Annette McNamara was born and raised in Ackley, Iowa, hopped a Greyhound bus to California in 1999, relocated to Osage Beach, Missouri in 2008, and is currently based out of Nashville, TN, or wherever her bus is parked! Her dream of converting a school bus into a tiny home/photo studio that could travel across the U.S. photographing stories of resilient human beings on the road came to life in late 2019.

To learn more about the Beautiful Strength Project visit
https://www.beautifulstrength.org/

You can follow the Beautiful Strength Project and Atticus the Bus on
Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube

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