As a kid, I never dreamed about someday living in a school bus. The idea would have seemed laughable at the time, like living in a hobbit hole or a giant shoe or something of that sort. A school bus was a place to catch up on last-minute homework or sleep, a place to chat with friends or to get lost in thought.
Mostly just one part of a tedious and not particularly enjoyable routine-- an experience most of us can probably relate to after being shuttled back and forth in a familiar yellow school bus a few thousand times during our youth.
I never could have imagined that one day I’d be in one of those same school buses cooking dinner, hosting friends, enjoying a warm shower, cuddling up in bed, or traveling the country. Neither my partner nor I imagined we’d be raising a bus roof two feet and building a cozy and comfortable home inside of it.
We also couldn’t have imagined that we’d someday pull an old school bus onto forty acres of raw wilderness and feel perfectly at home. And yet here we are-- and we’re looking at those old school buses in a whole new light these days.
My name is Jude and I live with my partner Yadi and our dog Esa in a school bus that we’ve converted into a home on wheels. We’ve been enjoying life in our bus (we call it Yonder) for over four years now, and could see ourselves calling this home for a long time to come.
A big house in the suburbs and a thirty-year mortgage may be the American dream for some (to each their own, well wishes to all and no judgment here), but a simple home in the woods with a big garden and a workshop feels just right for us.
Yadi and I met at East Wind Community, an egalitarian income-sharing community of more than seventy people living together in the Missouri Ozarks. In addition to meeting each other, the experience of living in the community gave us new perspectives, skills, and friends-- and opened us up to the many possibilities of living unconventionally.
Yadi and I each lived in several different spaces while at East Wind (including a yurt, a dome, a cabin, and various rooms in shared houses), and spent a year living in an old school bus called Anarchia before eventually moving on. Anarchia is a bit more basic than our Yonder bus with just a bed and a wood stove and not a whole lot else, but bus life suited us well even then.
While we were living in the community in the Ozarks, my brother Jay built a tiny house that he called the Matchbox in Washington DC. He built his home at a time before I had heard the words ‘tiny’ and ‘house’ put together, and I consider him one of the early pioneers of the modern tiny house movement.
He initially built his tiny house alongside a few others in a small community called Boneyard Studios and gave free tours of the Matchbox to enthusiastic crowds. The Matchbox was such a hit that it was even featured on the cover of the Washington Post in 2015. Seeing Jay’s build gave Yadi and I inspiration to consider taking on a similar project, and some features of Yonder were directly inspired by the Matchbox (such as our foot control faucet).
The idea of bus life struck us again in 2016 after spotting a friend’s bus in Vermont. The Butter Bus was a pale-yellow shorty with one word in large black lettering above the windshield that instantly drew me in: “yes!”. Seeing friends in that same bus in northern California later that year was inspiring, and the idea of bus life suddenly seemed accessible and within reach.
After living in an old school bus in the community, seeing the tiny home that my brother built, and spending time with friends who traveled the country in a bus, the idea of converting a bus into a home didn’t seem so crazy at all.
Yadi and I both loved the idea of doing a bus conversion, and it didn’t take either of us much convincing to take on the project. We didn’t have a permanent place to settle down at the time or have any idea where we might end up, so we loved the idea of being able to put our energy and money into something that we could take with us whenever we decided to go.
We were both already accustomed to small and simple living as well as living off-grid, so the transition to the bus was an easy one. Yadi’s talent and skills in regards to building, woodworking, plumbing, and electrical work allowed us to make any and all of our visions into reality.
In late 2016, we bought a ‘93 forty-foot front-engine Blue Bird school bus with a Cummins 5.9L engine that Yadi found online for just $1,500. The man that we bought it from had recently gotten it directly from the school district and was intending to take it to Africa and go into business as a bus driver there. Affordable used buses are a lot harder to come across in Africa, and he felt that it would have been worth the $7,000 cost to ship the bus overseas.
After purchasing the bus, he decided to move to Zimbabwe, one of the countries in Africa where they drive on the left side of the road. He considered switching around the driver’s seat and front door but decided it wasn’t worthwhile after all, and sold the bus to us instead. Either way, our bus was destined for great things.
We’ve put a lot of time, energy, and love into our bus and we’ll probably never consider it to be truly finished. We moved in after just three months of building (most of this time was spent gutting the bus and raising the roof) and spent the next couple of years building the bus around us.
Gutting the bus was pretty straightforward, we took a power washer to it inside and out after removing the seats (and a couple of decades worth of junk food wrappers, pencil stubs, and love notes encrusted in a thick layer of black grime).
The roof raise was quite a bit more daunting but went about as smooth as we could have hoped (we cut the bus in half and used scaffolding with leveling legs to slowly raise the top inch by inch). The build has been a ton of work, but it’s always been a labor of love. Every project completed directly translated into an upgrade in our day-to-day quality of life.
Completing shelving meant we didn’t have to rummage through plastic totes to find our food, kitchenware, clothes, and other belongings. Installing our wood stove meant that we could enjoy its warmth when the cold weather came. Completing our shower was definitely a cause for celebration.
We put a lot of thought into designing our bus to be as well built, space-efficient, and nontoxic as possible. For the exterior, we used steel tubing and sheet metal to make the bus whole again after raising the roof.
On the interior, we used wood as our primary building material-- our bus features a wide variety of different types including cedar, pine, hickory, black walnut, oak, Brazilian chestnut, Brazilian Tigerwood, Ipe, Poplar, Purpleheart, and Redwood.
We used Tigerwood hardwood flooring throughout the bus and knotty pine for the walls. All of our wood was sanded and finished by us with pure tung oil mixed with citrus solvent. We used organic wool and cotton for our bedding and couch cushions, and jute burlap for simple homemade curtains.
Our freshwater is stored in and piped through stainless steel. We use wood for heat and solar for power (although we do still sometimes rely on a generator for power as we continue to build up our solar system).
We did our best to make what we could ourselves rather than purchase already made furniture, which allowed us to save money and customize everything to our needs and style. We bought used whenever possible, scoring our wood stove, fridge, stove/oven, kitchen sink, fresh water tanks, driver’s seat, and additional windows secondhand.
We love to shop at Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit that builds homes for those in need and offers salvaged building materials at very affordable prices. We always try to build and buy things that will last (ideally a lifetime, but realistically as long as possible). Even with careful planning, upgrades and maintenance are an inevitable part of life. Our bus is on its second wood stove and second kitchen table, and the exterior has gone from yellow to blue to green over the years.
Our bus features a spacious living room with an open floor plan-- seating that can accommodate eight to ten people, a bookshelf, and houseplants stacked on homemade copper shelving along with two seven-foot-tall windows. We built enclosed wooden benches on top of the front wheel wells-- both open for storage and one can be folded out into a double bed (so that three overnight guests can be comfortably accommodated in the living room).
Our kitchen includes a large wood stove (located next to a small trap door that opens to a storage hatch under the bus where we store firewood), a 3-burner propane stove and small oven, a large double stainless-steel sink with water flow controlled by a foot pedal, a mid-sized RV fridge that can run on electric or propane, a live edge cedar table and countertops, homemade hickory cabinetry with ample storage, and a large medicine cabinet (mostly used for homemade herbal medicine).\
We have a spacious closet for clothing, shoes, bedding, and towels. Our bathroom features a tiled step-down shower (the rest of the bathroom is raised over a rear-wheel well), a homemade built-in composting bucket toilet (complete with an exhaust fan, urine diverter, and stainless-steel pot to poop in), and a small sink on a live edge black walnut countertop with storage underneath.
Our bedroom is a raised loft with a full-size wool mattress and a large half-moon window. Our ‘utility room’ is beneath our loft, and contains our two 55-gallon stainless steel fresh water tanks, water pump, instant water heater, components for our solar system (including our inverter and charge controller), and storage space.
Our bus came equipped with four large hatches for storage beneath the bus-- we use one for firewood, one for solar batteries, one for propane and tools, and one for extra storage.
We have our gray water tank mounted beneath our bus, solar panels on the roof, and a fold-down purpleheart table on one side. Our bus also has a back porch that sometimes serves as a place to strap our motorcycle or extra storage while traveling.
We make a pretty solid team and are proud to have done all aspects of the build ourselves. We’ve each put over a thousand hours of work into our bus, with many more projects we have yet to check off our list.
Our different skills and strengths have complemented each other throughout the build, resulting in a space that we both love living in, and occasionally showing off.
A lot of folks get stuck thinking in terms of outdated gender stereotypes and assume that Yadi single-handedly built our bus himself, but the truth is that our bus has been a collaborative effort from day one. Truthfully, I couldn’t imagine a better partner to build and share a home with Yadi.
We spent our first couple of years in the bus living in Georgia, where family graciously welcomed us and offered us space on their land. While continuing to work on our build, we also helped them to establish their new twenty-acre venue located just south of Atlanta (called Refinery Hill).
We were able to move our bus onto the venue and help to convert the buildings and cultivate the land while saving up funds and continuing to make progress on the bus. Though bus progress slowed as we focused our time and energy on the venue, the bus continued to take shape slowly but surely.
In 2019, we hit the road and traveled the country in our bus. Over the years, we’ve spent time in the bus in Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, California, and Oregon.
We like to take our time and travel slow; you don’t really have much of a choice in a bus that can’t go faster than 55 mph-- and much slower uphill. We love to visit with friends around the country, and greatly appreciate all of the hospitality that we’ve received over the years.
When we’re not staying with friends, we get a lot of use out of free campsite apps and websites, in all of our travels and time spent living in the bus, we’ve only paid to park three times. Our bus has allowed us to see the country, spend time with friends, and explore new work opportunities while never having to leave the comfort of our home.
Whether we were in a friend’s driveway or backyard, in the redwoods or the desert or the mountains or some other magical wilderness, or posted up for the night at a truck stop or Walmart parking lot--- we were always home.
In late December 2020, we found our most permanent parking spot yet when we purchased forty acres of beautiful Ozark wilderness in the Boston Mountains of northwest Arkansas.
A lot of people have asked us if we’re going to build a cabin or a house and maybe we will someday, but for now, the bus is all we need. Having the bus allowed us to roll into this completely raw wilderness with everything we could possibly want and need already here.
We’ve been able to focus our energy on gardens, orchards, water, firewood, and outbuildings while enjoying all the familiar comforts of home. It’s been great to have a place to settle into, but that definitely doesn’t mean that we’re not already planning our next big adventures.
We once worried that we might not enjoy being cramped and crowded, but now this forty-foot bus feels just right. We truly enjoyed the experience of building our own home, learned a lot along the way, and are now intimately familiar with every square inch of our bus and all the love and care that went into it.
Converting a bus has allowed us to build the little home of our dreams for a fraction of the cost of conventional housing. We were able to do things in our own time by building our home before we found a place to settle down, and bring it with us when we did.
Our home conveniently doubles as a luxurious and well-built RV that has allowed us to travel the country and spend time with friends in ways that we couldn’t have without it.
Bus life may not be for everyone, but we consider converting a bus to be one of the best decisions we’ve made and one of our most rewarding adventures yet. What once might’ve seemed like a crazy idea has become a way of life for us.
This may have been just another old yellow school bus a few years ago, but now it’s home.