Life in 491 Miles and 107 Square Feet
April 24, 2019
April 24, 2019
I stare at the peeling paint surrounding me, close to tears. A week’s worth of work and hundreds of dollars in paint is peeling away at the touch of my hand, useless. As I survey the mess, I wonder how I’ve gotten here—standing inside a gutted school bus, my future home.
The path takes us from San Francisco to Colorado to Texas, back to Colorado, then back to Texas again, finally, with stops in New Mexico and Utah in between. A long, meandering path across the western U.S.
As I left the office for the final time at 10 p.m. on June 21, 2018, I couldn’t wait to put the late nights behind me. The irony that I’d gone back to my desk to continue working after my goodbye party didn’t slip past me. I was burnt out, doing the work of at least three people (but only getting paid for one, of course), running a department and filling the shoes my boss had left behind months earlier, with no help in sight.
I knew I was walking away from a potential opportunity, but I was walking away with good reason. It’s what I wanted. I was finally pursuing long-dreamed of adventures. But from that Uber winding the dark, late-night streets of San Francisco, I couldn’t imagine where my adventures would lead.
Those adventures would lead me away from anything I imagined in college. As a student at Southwestern, I craved the big-city life. I studied abroad in Spain and spent a semester in New York City. For a time, I wanted the proximity of things, places, and people that comes with living in a city. I studied art history and added a second major in business, thinking I’d work in marketing for an art museum. But the taste of the nonprofit art world I got in New York didn’t sit well with me. After, I bounced around from event planning to public relations, from corporate communications at a giant engineering firm to marketing at a tiny start-up. Upon moving to San Francisco, I landed in advertising. Through two agencies, I wound my way from office manager to production coordinator to business affairs, a niche role that combined legal know-how, contract writing, talent negotiations, finance, and music licensing. I found myself managing multimillion-dollar celebrity contracts. Talent budgets in the hundreds of thousands. Negotiating with national actors’ unions and talent agents wearing designer suits in cushy offices. Calling music labels about “Don’t Stop Believin’” and fielding proposals from Drake.
I do believe the liberal arts prepare us well for the meandering, unpredictable nature of today’s career paths.
While I didn’t go to school for business affairs (no one does, honestly) and haven’t had a job that directly pulls from either of my majors at Southwestern, I do believe the liberal arts prepare us well for the meandering, unpredictable nature of today’s career paths. Professors encouraged me to link diverse fields of thought, to be open to new, surprising possibilities. Some people may argue that as liberal-arts students, we aren’t masters in any single field. I’d argue that today’s economy doesn’t want specialists. It wants generalists. Even in complex fields like law, medicine, or engineering, I’ve met many a lawyer or engineer who has jumped from one firm to another and dabbled in multiple specialties. Though I rolled my eyes at the buzzwords I constantly overheard in San Francisco’s tech scene, they do hold some truth about what’s expected in today’s workers: “wearing many hats,” “jumping in,” “scrappy,” “making it work.” And I think Southwestern encourages all of these things in its students.
The weight of water
A month after leaving my job, I crouch under large pine trees lining a dirt Forest Service road while ever-increasing hail rains down from above. Grape-sized pieces ping off my hands, which are clasped behind my head. I’m in “lightning position,” a small, uncomfortable crouch that’s a mix between the crash position shown in airline safety videos and the protective tornado stance taught in Texas schools. It’s also a hiker’s only defense against lightning when caught in a storm outdoors. My knees and hips, sore from carrying a 40-plus-pound pack all afternoon, scream in protest. Flashes light up the sky; thunder crashes. I pick up a handful of hail from the ground and use the ice to massage my aching joints.
If I wasn’t so terrified, I’d laugh at myself. I’m here by choice, two days into what could be a four- to six-week backpacking trip. A thru-hike.
A thru-hike is a long, continuous backpacking trip from one point to another, often thousands of miles apart. The Colorado Trail, at “only” 491 miles (the original version, finished in 1987, is 486 miles long, but since then, a new portion of the trail has opened, and hikers must split between the Collegiate East or Collegiate West routes; the western option, my choice, is slightly longer, at 491 miles), is considered a short thru-hike. Each day, a thru-hiker gets up, walks as far as they can, eats a lot, camps, then gets up and does it all again the next day. For weeks and months on end. As thru-hikers, we carry everything we need on our backs—food, water, shelter, clothing—only going into towns when we need to buy more food, roughly every four to seven days.
Yes, this is some people’s version of fun. Yes, it’s a bit likeWild.
It’s my second day on the Colorado Trail, a roughly 500-mile path that winds from Denver to Durango, through the Colorado Rockies, along the Continental Divide, and into the San Juan mountain range. The trail goes as high as 13,271 feet, averages an elevation over 10,300, and has a total elevation change (ascents plus descents) of almost 90,000 feet. I haven’t experienced much of that yet, though. Despite walking 12.1 miles that day and 17 miles the day before, I still have more than 460 miles to go.
Earlier in the afternoon, I entered a 14-mile dry stretch. No water for hours in any direction. After a high-mile first day, my legs couldn’t manage the entire dry stretch all at once. I needed to camp in the middle of it. I carried what I hoped was enough water to last until morning. How much water does one actually use?? It’s something I hadn’t thought about when water flowed easily from the tap in my kitchen sink. With only two days of thru-hiking under my belt, I don’t know the answer to my question. I’m still a beginner at this. I hope six liters—twice what I normally carry—is enough. I need enough water to drink, brush my teeth (morning and night), rehydrate my dinner, make my morning coffee, and wash my feet before bed, plus my face. Washing your feet is a thru-hiker ritual. It removes salty sweat and gritty dirt, which helps prevent blisters and protects our feet—one of the most precious resources to a thru-hiker. As for washing my face, well, I just couldn’t skip that luxury.
I’d ended up in this spot because I’d carried all that water—all 13.2 pounds of it, not to mention my 16.5 pounds of base weight (nonconsumables) and 10-plus pounds of food—the entire afternoon and couldn’t take another step. Storm clouds had been looming all day, threatening to break open. Just as I was about to pour some of my precious water into a pot to boil for dinner, the clouds burst. A few drops of rain turned into a downpour, a thunderstorm, a ferocious lightning storm. I threw my things in my tent and dove down the hill to get away from the electricity-conducting rocks and metal in my campsite. Hail joined the onslaught falling from the sky.
This is why I’m hiding under the trees, a tiny ball crouched in my yellow rain slicker beneath the rage of the storm. A few cars pull over on the dirt road behind me, trying to take shelter under the pines like I am. After a few minutes, one of them yells at me, “Hey, want to get in?” Stranger danger crosses my mind. I consider it for a second but don’t care—I’ll take my chances with them versus the lightning and ever-increasing hail.
Even inside their truck, the storm is so loud that these strangers and I can’t hear each other over the bouncing hail. We don’t talk at all for the first 15 minutes. I see two people, roughly my age, sitting up front. They don’t look like murderers. When the storm lets up slightly, we exchange stories. They have so many questions, and I love answering them. I tell them why I’m here, about fulfilling my long-held dream of attempting a thru-hike. I tell them how after this hike, I want to pursue another long-held dream: buying, renovating, and living out of a van. I want to be a nomad, traveling the U.S. and immersing myself in the natural world I love so much. Being Denverites, they both know people who’ve lived the “vanlife” and other alternative lifestyles. Sarah mentions an Instagram friend who remodels school buses for a living. Jacob has looked into used buses sold at auction and confirms they can be had for as little as $3K–5K. A seed is planted.
Women on the Road
I hike most of the first 300 miles alone, seeing as few as one or two other people per day. I came out here to have time to think, to escape the hustle of San Francisco life. While living in the city, I longed for time and space to hear my own thoughts. But after almost three weeks of hiking solo, I’ve gotten my fill of alone time. I’m ready for a “trail family”—a group of fellow hikers to walk and camp with each day.
Becca and I first meet in a hostel in Salida, one of the many trail towns Colorado Trail hikers stop in to shower, sleep in a real bed, and eat nondehydrated food. We’re roommates for a night, but she and a fellow hiker, Ryan, leave town the day before me, so I don’t expect to see them again. Little do I know, we’ll hike almost 200 miles together.
Living in the woods makes thru-hikers a feral bunch, and much of the stiffness of regular society drops away. We form fast friendships, hiking together all day, every day, for weeks at a time. I feel closer to Becca and Ryan than some of the friends I knew for years in San Francisco. We spend the final two weeks on trail together, finish as a group in Durango, and carpool back to Denver for our respective flights home. We each reel from the sense of loss that comes with finishing a big accomplishment, struggle with culture shock as we try to transition back into civilized society, and crave more adventures, so when Becca lands a job at a Utah ski resort for the winter and suggests we road trip from Texas to Salt Lake City with a stop in Taos, New Mexico, at a Women on the Road convention, I eagerly agree.
The convention is an inaugural event, bringing together listeners of the namesake podcast to meet in person for the first time. It’s also a chance for me to tour some of the vans fellow women live in, pepper van dwellers with questions, and finally see some “skoolies” (as school-bus conversions are affectionately called) in person. Touring a few vans and talking with a skoolie owner about life on the road, breakdowns, mechanical issues, and her conversion soothes a lot of my fears. While living in San Francisco, I passively looked at vans online for over a year, but something never felt right. As soon as the trail ended, I started looking at pictures of skoolie conversions. In the months since, I’ve been researching, diving into the intricacies of school-bus types, engines, and what it takes to dismantle a kid-proof interior. Now, I’m ready. The Women on the Road gathering is the push I needed.
After the event ends, Becca and I continue road tripping through northern New Mexico and into Utah. When I spot a trio of short buses parked on a grass lot in a random town in rural Utah, I make her pull over. As we walk around the buses, inspecting tire tread, looking for rust spots, crawling underneath to check on the chassis, and analyzing the value of their engines versus the listed price, I step outside myself for a moment. I can see how much I’ve learned over the past few months, how my research is turning into action. It’s amazing.
The buses in Utah aren’t the right fit, but a few weeks later, a Craigslist post leads to a bus at a used-car dealer outside of Denver. The location dovetails nicely with a Colorado ski trip I already had planned. I fly out the day after Thanksgiving.
When I see and drive the bus in person, it’s nearly perfect. It checks all of the boxes on my list: length, size, accessibility, drivetrain, age, miles, fuel type, condition. It costs slightly more than I intended to spend, but the location and timing can’t be beat. I buy it. The next day, a friend and I drive up to the mountains. I spend two weeks near Vail, skiing and using timeshare vouchers to soak up the joy of warm beds and hot tubs before I transition to the bus. When I move in, it’s still 100% bus. No insulation, no creature comforts, not even a real bed. As an accessible bus, it has an empty space in the back where wheelchairs used to sit. It’s just large enough to fit my twin-size air mattress and the suitcase I’m living out of.
For the month of December, I crisscross Colorado and Utah on a grand ski tour. I take the bus on her first dirt roads in Moab and wake to see the desert covered in snow, white dust shining against the red rocks. I retrace the steps Becca and I made a few months earlier as I drive up to Salt Lake, marveling at how the seasons have changed and winter has taken hold. I get a taste of her life as a lift operator, skiing all day and being welcomed into the close-knit community of “lifties” there. I get to know the bus on mountain roads and stare in awe at the beauty in little-known corners of this country. I spend the night in a skiers’ parking lot in Telluride and an empty back lot behind a Holiday Inn outside of Crested Butte. The legality of this is questionable. I brazenly drive up a narrow, winding road to attempt to reach a trail town I visited this summer, ignoring signs that advise truckers to take alternate routes, then quickly come to my senses and am forced to make a terrifying U-turn on the twisting two-lane road. I ski alone and meet new people on each lift ride. I make friends on shuttles from town to the resort and ski with them all day. I cook on a camp stove or my small backpacking stove, subsisting on cereal and variations of cheese with carbs. I test out gear I bought a few years ago for Lake Tahoe skiing but rarely used once Bay Area traffic combined with a ruthless drought to make miserable ski conditions. I relearn what terrain I like, and memories from childhood skiing in Montana slowly filter back. I stop to use the bathroom in Walmarts and grocery stores and splurge on the occasional hot spring or shower at a local rec center. I do what I want and don’t feel bad if I only ski a couple hours or go to bed at 8 p.m. or face-plant in powder.
Being a beginner
I arrive at my mom’s house in Texas just in time for Christmas Eve and holiday festivities. After the new year, my work on the bus begins in earnest. A neighborhood Facebook scuffle about the “old school bus” parked on their staid, leafy streets introduces me to Frank, a neighbor who offers to let me park the bus in his fenced driveway away from prying eyes. He turns out to be an amazing resource: a work-from-home salesman who spent his youth working on high-end cars and loves tinkering on the bus. His garage is an endless font of tools, and he shows my sister and me how to use each of them without a hint of condescension.
As the holidays end and my family returns to work and school, I migrate south to Austin, where a Southwestern friend’s driveway awaits. Laura Painchaud ’13 and I have been best friends for years. We met on the cross-country team freshman year, and she has long supported my dreams of living this nontraditional life. Shortly after college, when we were both attempting to live on new-grad incomes but hadn’t yet discovered public libraries, we shared books, mailing them back and forth across state lines. I still treasure the note she wrote when she mailed me Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s book about thru-hiking most of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,653-mile trail that runs from Mexico to Canada. In the note, Laura hoped that if I found myself unsure what my address was, I’d use hers, and if I ever needed a home, I’d be welcome in hers. The future foretold in her note came to fruition when I started my Colorado Trail thru-hike over the summer. She provided endless support: carefully mailing the resupply packages I’d put together for myself, fielding all of my mail that arrived at her house, and giving me a comfortable room to rest in before and after my hike. Now, I return to her home with my bus for the first time. With a long driveway, lots of storage space for tools, and indifferent neighbors, it’s the perfect place to work.
My sister and I had managed to remove all of the school-bus seats while working at Frank’s house. I’d felt very accomplished at the time, but now, reality set in. Each step of working on the bus takes three times longer and costs three times more than I think it will. I’d naively thought demolition would take only a week, installing insulation and a new floor could be done in two, and that I’d be back on the road in three to four weeks max. As the weeks roll by, I’m constantly humbled, forced to check my expectations, surrender my idea of timing, and accept that I’m a beginner at demolition and construction no matter how many YouTube videos I watch.
This is how I find myself standing inside the bus in mid-February, staring in horror as the primer I’d applied separates from the metal floor, peeling up the expensive insulating paint I’d applied on top of it.
I’m not sure where exactly my dream of completing a thru-hike came from. Perhaps it started when Laura mailed me that copy of Wild after graduation. I know I saw myself in the memoir, a fellow woman who’d also lost a parent too young. A few years ago, I began to look forward to “hiker season.” Each year, thru-hikers on the nation’s longest trails (the PCT on the West Coast, the AT on the East Coast, and the CDT up the middle of the country) document their hikes and share them via blogs and Instagram. I ravenously followed along. I related to their struggles, their elation, and longed to find out whether the hiker I suspected was inside myself actually existed. When the chaos and noise of the city became too much, I’d retreat inside podcasts and books about living outside and doing unconventional things. I was especially drawn to the stories of female adventurers. Luckily, we’re living in a golden age of storytelling. Social media, the Internet, and podcasts all shed light on voices not traditionally heard in the explorer books of old. The pockets of nature in San Francisco became my retreat. I’d go on morning walks through the Presidio, soaked up the rare sunny day in city parks, and began to venture further afield on weekend hikes.
Somewhere along the way, I was also captivated by the images and stories I saw online of people living in vans. I’m not sure where my van dream came from either. A single genesis moment doesn’t stand out in my mind. I do know that watching my father die suddenly and unexpectedly when I was 15 shapes my life choices. It drove home the fact that life is short and can end at any time. It’s forced me to reckon with what I want out of life. Over and over and over again. The answer has changed in the decade-plus since his death, but I’ve always felt an unease with spending my days at a desk inside. Sometimes, I buried this truth in favor of checking boxes, doing the “right” thing to reach the next step on the ladder and obtain shiny achievements that look good from the outside, but this truth has surfaced off and on for years.
After the excitement of moving to San Francisco wore off, I didn’t feel at home in the city anymore. I traveled as much as my vacation days and budget allowed. Most times when I returned from a trip, I was sad to be done traveling instead of relieved to be home. Once, returning from my first-ever visit to Colorado, I cried walking into the San Francisco office where I worked at the time. The job wasn’t a good fit, and my heart longed for the mountains. I didn’t feel at home. I felt more at peace on the road. While listening to a podcast featuring Brianna Madia, a female vanlifer and dog mom, she perfectly said what I’d been feeling: why spend time, energy, and money coming back to a place that doesn’t feel like home when you can bring your home with you on the road?
A long germination
Growing up, my mom provided an amazing financial example. She instilled strong money values in me: live within your means, don’t go into debt, pay off your credit cards each month, and always save money. These lessons stuck with me even when I was making a meager entry-level salary and living in the most expensive city in the country. I found a way to save money each of the five years I lived in San Francisco. At first, I didn’t know what I was saving for; I just knew it was something I should do. As my dreams began to take shape, my saving goal did, too. I wanted to save enough money to quit my job, buy a van, do a thru-hike, and live for a year without needing to work.
A short-lived attempt at leaving advertising in 2015 reinforced that quitting my job couldn’t be a rash decision. That year, I’d left the job that wasn’t a good fit, the one where I’d cried upon returning from Colorado. It was the first job I’d had in San Francisco and the first time I walked away from one. I didn’t have a plan, but I was fed up. I tried to make my way with a series of seasonal jobs (camp counselor, assistant to a chef) but returned to advertising six months later, after a friend connected me to a position that paid much better and came with a sane, friendly manager.
In this new role, I learned to negotiate and used these skills, plus my great boss and the competitive San Francisco job market, to advocate for myself. I doubled my salary in less than two years. I poured nearly all of it into cash savings and my retirement accounts.
My dreams of thru-hiking and buying a van stayed with me. Once they proved to be more than a passing fad, I began to talk about them. I warmed my family up to the radical idea that I would quit a good job and go “live in a van down by the river.” Friends became my accountability partners. They’d ask about van progress, when I was leaving San Francisco, when I’d become a nomad. After a year or so, I tired of saying, “Not yet, the timing isn’t right.” I watched a few friends move away to pursue their own dreams and found myself jealous. I wanted to be doing something.
At the beginning of 2018, it was time to get serious. This was going to be my year. On a sunny January day in San Francisco, I sat in a neighborhood library plugging numbers into a spreadsheet. Despite all of my financial progress over the past few years, a big number was staring me in the face: I’d need to save $15,000 in less than six months. Based on rough monthly budgets other vanlifers shared online and my own research about thru-hiking plus van costs, I figured I could do my hike, buy a van, and live for a year on $40,000. The difference between what I already had stashed away and what I needed to save if I wanted to comfortably quit my job by June—the start of Colorado hiking season—was $15k.
Looking back, I’m still amazed. I’m not quite sure how I achieved my goal. I withdrew from the typical San Francisco social scene even more than I already had, opting for free weekend classes or hikes rather than a $60 boozy brunch with friends. I slashed my spending. April tax returns and a surprise birthday gift from my grandparents provided significant contributions. I negotiated another raise for myself and tucked it away. Little by little, the number in my savings account crept upwards, and the amount I’d outlined in orange on my spreadsheet, the amount left to save, came down.
When I wasn’t hiking, getting outside, or working, I was researching. Researching how to plan a thru-hike, how to train my body to hike double-digit miles day after day, how to find the right van, how to build a tiny home with no construction experience … the research was endless and all-consuming at times. I frequently stared at the computer screen until the wee hours of the morning, opening more and more Internet tabs until I began to both drown in information overload and finally understand a particular aspect of a project. Truth be told, I still do this.
Through this research, I learned that one of the biggest reasons thru-hikers are forced off trail is injury. Many people don’t train enough before their hike. They assume their bodies will adjust to the endless walking but are sadly sidelined by overuse injuries. As a lifelong athlete, I’d had my share of injuries and did not want another one. I trained as much as I could. I brought a backpack to the gym and loaded it with 25-pound weights while I speed walked on the StairMaster. I’d always walked a lot in the city, but now it had a purpose. I got rid of my bus pass and began walking the 2.5 miles each way to work. I used these walks to test out backpacks and see which one I wanted to take on my hike. After a few weeks, I added multiliter water bottles for weight. I sought out the most intense San Francisco hills instead of avoiding them. I did long training hikes with a full pack on the weekends. All the things I was already doing in my everyday life became a chance to train for my hike.
The University spends years encouraging its students to think about problems and go looking for answers. From philosophy to marketing, every class encourages research.
As I reflect on the journey to where I am today, one of the things that comes up over and over is research. I’ve done hours—days actually, if not weeks—of research. Part of that is my personality. I like answers and like soothing my anxieties about the unknown with research, thinking it will contain answers. But surely part of this drive for research comes from Southwestern, too. The University spends years encouraging its students to think about problems and go looking for answers. From philosophy to marketing, every class encourages research.
But perhaps what Southwestern gave me most of all was confidence. Coming from one of the biggest high schools in Texas in one of the most competitive school districts, I didn’t feel special. Despite graduating high school with a 4.0, working 20-plus hours a week, taking a full load of AP classes, and running on a nationally recognized cross-country team, I felt squarely average. It seemed like everyone in high school did those things, often better than I did. Grade-point averages were so competitive that I wasn’t even in the top 10% and our salutatorian and valedictorian were a hundredth of a decimal point apart. Southwestern enabled me to feel like a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Professors and staff cared about me, my interests, my well-being. Through classes, athletics, work opportunities, and study abroad, my sphere of advisors at SU nurtured me. Kim Smith, Andy Ross, Xan Koonce, Jason Bonick, A. J. Senchack, Francie Larrieu—each helped me along my path and built up my confidence in myself. The endless opportunities at Southwestern to get involved helped, too. Sometimes I got too involved, but the numerous student organizations and leadership roles I held further built my confidence.
Southwestern enabled me to feel like a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Professors and staff cared about me, my interests, my well-being.
And perhaps that’s what has helped me most along this journey—confidence. Another way to phrase it could be “being scared but doing it anyway.” In hindsight, that seems to be what’s helped me get to where I am—taking leaps in spite of my fear, in spite of not knowing how it will turn out. For me, confidence is like a muscle. The more I exercise it, the more innate it becomes. Moving to San Francisco without a job, brazenly quitting the job I did find, setting off on solo adventures, hiking into the woods alone, tearing apart a bus—I didn’t know how any of it would turn out, but each successive leap built on the one before it and reinforced the confidence that I’d figure it out, that I’d land on my feet.
Privilege and diversity
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge all the privilege that’s helped me get to where I am. My journey hasn’t been just luck and hard work. It’s had a lot of baked-in privilege supporting it, too. I grew up in an upper-middle-class family that traveled often and instilled the value of experiences over things. They showed me different ways of being, that marriage or a family doesn’t have to happen young and is not a woman’s only option. A fortunate mix of family support and college scholarships enabled me to graduate debt-free. After seeing my peers in San Francisco struggle with student-loan payments and credit-card debt, I cannot attest enough how privileged I am to not have that cloud hanging over my every move. Strong family ties and family members with financial resources gave me the peace of mind of a strong safety net every time I leapt. Well-connected friends and family have introduced me to good-paying jobs, which in turn gave me the luxury of considering my own fulfillment and happiness. Even contemplating these things is a privilege that probably sounds absurd to anyone who is struggling to put food on the table or provide for their families. All of my interconnected privileges supported my financial independence, which in turn enabled me to quit unhealthy jobs, walk away from toxic relationships, and uproot my life multiple times.
And ultimately, one of the reasons I find solace in the outdoors and take refuge here is the color of my skin. My whiteness. Seeing outdoor adventurers or vanlifers who are people of color is rare. This is slowly changing, but it’s a sad and unfortunate truth that the outdoors and its industries are still dominated by white people. We learn through what we see, examples that are set for us. Though my family claims they aren’t “outdoorsy,” we did do things that exposed me to the outdoors while growing up. I went on Girl Scout camping trips, visited National Parks, skied in Montana. All of these things would have been far less likely if the color of my skin was different. And understandably so. The outdoors hasn’t always been a safe place for people of color. Many of the public lands where we white people now recreate were once home to people, people who were forcibly removed or harassed until they left. This history doesn’t exactly instill the desire in minority communities to “get outside.” I’m still grappling with how I can advocate for diversity in the outdoor community, but one of the small changes I’ve seen and something that I try to implement in my life is land acknowledgements—researching whose ancestral homeland I’m camped on or hiking on and acknowledging that history.
As I write this, I’m on Jicarilla Apache, Pueblo, and Ute land, also known as Taos, New Mexico.
Acceptance over perfection
In the end, the paint peeling off the floor of my bus wasn’t that big a deal. After a tearful, emotional outpouring and a day or two of mourning, I scraped the last of the paint out of the can and simply repainted. A couple spots didn’t get all the layers and coatings I wanted them to have, but now that it’s buried under layers of insulation, wood, and flooring, I can’t tell the difference. Like all good daily catastrophes, it didn’t matter as much as it seemed to at the time.
I worked on the bus for another month after the paint incident, rebuilding the floor I’d ripped out. It was applied in layers, like geological rocks. First I framed the perimeter of the floor in wood beams, then trimmed rigid foam-board insulation to fit inside the beams. I tore up my nice, clean insulated floor with a router, digging a small channel so I could lay tubing for radiant in-floor heat. I cut and fit a plywood subfloor to cover the relatively soft insulation, then covered that with beautiful, dark faux-wood vinyl planks. I built a bed frame and hoisted a brand new mattress onto it. I made my own bed, with my own sheets and linens, for the first time since I left San Francisco in July. I filled the under-bed storage and then some, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of possessions most of us seem to accumulate.
Each step along the way necessitated countless trips to Home Depot (and sometimes the less-preferable Lowe’s), endless reading on skoolie forums, frantic watching of YouTube videos when I hit a roadblock or didn’t know how to use a certain tool. Speaking of tools, I’ve learned so much. I know my way around nearly every aisle at Home Depot. At a recent camping spot, I played a game with a hardware store employee, seeing how many tools we could each list by name. I beat him at his own game. It’s odd but empowering to feel like I belong in the world of power tools and hardware, a world traditionally dominated by men. I feel very confident when I walk into a Home Depot now. More often than not, I know what a tool is used for and how to use it.
A few weeks ago, I got back out on the road, leaving behind the comfort of Laura’s home in exchange for catching the tail end of ski season. I packed my tools and have continued to do small (or large, depending on your perspective) bus projects on the road. I cut and glued vinyl flooring to the bus stairs. I measured fabric for window curtains. I hung a curtain rod, storage baskets, and temporary cabinets. I broke down and finally bought my own drill after subsisting on borrowed drills for months. Magically, it was only the second power tool I’ve had to purchase.
The bus isn’t perfect. Although parts of it are beautiful, I don’t yet consider it an “Instagram bus” or even close to finished. I’m living without heat, electricity, running water, or a bathroom. As one man exclaimed on the ski-lift ride we shared, it’s like I’m a pioneer living on the frontier. At times, it’s frustrating or hard, but I don’t lose sight of the fact that I’m doing this by choice. So many others don’t have a choice in whether they live this way, don’t have the luxury of skiing or traveling as far as they want or paying for a campground to get a hot shower. I know I’m immensely privileged to be living this life.
Someday, whether in a few months or next winter, I’ll enter the next phase of bus demolition. I’ll rip off the factory walls and ceiling, then finally finish remodeling the interior. I’ll build a couch, permanent cabinets, and lots of storage spaces. Eventually, I’ll have solar power and a water heater and get to use the radiant floor heat I worked so hard for. Perhaps it will be when I get tired of living like a pioneer on the frontier, or find that not having off-the-grid power limits the adventures I can take, or run out of savings and am forced to get a job and find myself in one place for a while.
All that is in the future, though, and I’m working on being present. I’m working on slowing down. After weeks of hustling to finish my hike before winter arrived in the mountains, months of rushing to meet my own construction deadlines, and years of living in the crush of city life, I’m trying to take it slow. I want to see all that this life and this country has to offer. I want to let the magic in.
You can follow Hadly’s adventures on Instagram @christinahadly.