We bought a bus!! I can’t believe it! I could write an entire book about our adventures this past week, but I will try to condense it down to one huge blog entry. First of all, I guess I should introduce myself. I have a human name, but for the purposes of this project, you will see me as Rainbow Warrior. My fellow adventure warriors are Sun Warrior and Moon Warrior, and together we are R.A.G.E., or Radical Adventures for a Greener Earth.
A few months ago, my fellow warriors and I decided to embark upon a wonderful adventure together and live a “low impact” lifestyle while traveling around the country with the intention of sharing that experience with others along the way. We began searching online for an old school bus to convert into our living space in January, and after just a few weeks we found “Bessie”. Bessie is a 1966 Flxible “New Look” bus, a city transit bus from Los Angeles, California. The owners, Keith and Lois, had purchased the bus in the mid-1980s from the Southern California Transit System and used the bus to move all of their belongings to Arkansas in 1998. The bus had been sitting in a pasture since 1998, having only been moved once every six months or so to keep the rust away.
In February, we drove to Siloam Springs, Arkansas to check out the bus. I fell in love at first sight and wanted to drive away into the sunset and live happily ever after. But Bessie had a leak in the air brakes and wasn’t moving anytime soon. So we drove back to Texas and left Bessie sitting in her pasture. After a few more days of late-night brainstorming sessions with the warriors, we decided that we wanted to go back for Bessie. The question was never “Can we do this?” the question was always “How do we do this?” After two weeks of talking to local mechanics in Arkansas and working out details with Keith and Lois, we decided that the only way that this was going to happen was to just go for it. We could spend our entire lives writing to-do lists and back up plans and saving our money, but the only way to really make something happen is to just do it!
Before the sun came up on a Monday morning in March, we were driving to Dallas to catch the Megabus to Oklahoma. Our first ride, from Austin to Dallas, was provided by a friend of mine that was on his way to visit family. My friend dropped us off at the bus station and wished us good luck on our adventure. As we stood alone at the bus stop I started to get a nervous feeling, aware that we had reached the point of no return. I realized how emotionally dependent I have become on the freedom that having a vehicle provides, and the security that I feel knowing that I can get in my car and go anywhere I want, whenever I want. On the bus I was able to stretch out across the seats and close my eyes, something that I can’t do when I am driving. I put in my headphones and thought about our next leg of the trip, which was trying to get to Tulsa, Oklahoma before dark. We didn’t really secure any plans for this part of the trip. A mechanic from Siloam Springs had agreed to pick us up in Tulsa in the early evening, but his phone was going straight to voicemail. I wasn’t too worried about it; I knew that we would make it to the bus one way or another.
We were almost to Oklahoma City when another passenger told us that the bus we were on was going to St. Louis after our stop. That meant that the bus was going to go straight through Tulsa, but it wouldn’t be stopping. The bus did, however, make frequent stops at gas stations to give the driver a break, so we decided to stay on the bus and see how close we could get to Tulsa. Half an hour outside of Tulsa, the bus made a stop at a gas station along I-44. The sun was sinking lower in the sky, and we made the decision to grab our bags and ditch the bus. The gas station was full of 18-wheelers, RVs and cars that had pulled off for a quick break, and after twenty minutes of holding up a cardboard sign that read ‘Tulsa’, we were offered a ride.
Doug and Carol, the owners of a small, grey-colored SUV, were driving home to Tulsa after a day of gambling in Oklahoma City. The three of us piled into the backseat and introduced ourselves. It wasn’t long before we were deep in conversation about the dangers of tar sands pipelines and hydraulic fracturing. Doug and Carol were in the middle of a class action lawsuit against an oil company after a pipeline spilled onto their property and contaminated the water supply. Two of their neighbor’s grandchildren had recently passed away after a losing battle with leukemia, probably linked to the water contamination that had made several people in their community sick. We fell silent in the backseat as we absorbed the gravity of their words. “We drank that water too,” Doug said. “Our children drank that water. We all got sick- that’s how we found out that the pipeline had leaked. They weren’t even going to tell us. They don’t care about us.” After losing their home to foreclosure in 2007, they moved to Tulsa with their son Brennan. “Where are you girls sleeping tonight?” Doug asked us. “We are camping! You can just drop us off wherever. We will try to go the rest of the way tomorrow.” Doug and Carol spent a few seconds making various facial expressions at each other in the front seat. “How would you girls feel about spending the night at our house? We will cook you dinner and give you a warm place to sleep, and then Brennan and I will take you to your bus in the morning!” We graciously accepted the invitation, overwhelmed by their generosity. I felt myself relax, now more confident than ever that the universe would find a way to take care of things.
In Doug and Carol’s living room, we were given a crash course in survivalism by our eager teacher, Doug. Doug pulled out his “grab and go” backpack, which was full of various fishing equipment and knives. “Do you girls have knives?” Moon Warrior and I bashfully admitted that we didn’t. “Well, you need knives!! Take these!” Doug handed us each a pocket knife, freshly sharpened by his stone. My knife was adorned with native influenced rainbow stripes on the handle, and was so sharp that I immediately nicked my finger. “How do you girls feel about guns?” Doug asked. “We definitely want to keep one on the bus.” We told him. Doug went to his room and returned with a rifle, which he handed to me to inspect. “You girls need to learn how to shoot- and shoot well.” We agreed. Doug went on to teach us how to set up a trot line, and gave us a package of line to get us started. Carol gathered up two bags full of white rice to add to our food stock, along with another bag of loose leaf tea.
After dinner, Sun Warrior brought out the ukulele and we sang songs until it was time to go to sleep. We made a pallet on the floor and crawled inside of our sleeping bag. The temperature outside was below freezing, and the wind was howling outside of the window. We fell asleep happy and warm, thankful for our good fortune. In the morning, we presented Doug and Carol with our own gifts that we had brought in our packs. We had packed several small things in our bags for the trip, including local honey, organic tea, coffee beans, and small soaps and candles. We said our goodbyes to Carol and climbed into the SUV with Doug and their son Brennan.
Doug drove us 100 miles to our destination, despite our offers to be dropped off along the road at any point. As we pulled into the driveway in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, we noticed the bus sitting in the driveway. The bright orange and white striped bus made for a stark contrast against the farmland, and with her fishbowl-shaped windshield and flat nose she looks like a cartoon character. We jumped out of the car and greeted Keith and Lois with huge smiles and lots of hugs. Keith was anxious about us wasting another trip to Arkansas, and we sat down to talk about the issues that the bus was having. “She has a leak in the air tank. I can’t stop the air from coming out, and she won’t build up enough pressure” Keith told us. The bus has an air brake system with four air tanks, and the brakes won’t release if the pressure is below 80psi. Doug crawled underneath the bus with us to check out the leak. We found three different sites where air was pouring out, and it became clear that we were not going to be able to fix it in Keith’s driveway. We said goodbye to Doug and Brennan and went inside the house to make our decision. If we decided to not buy the bus, we were going to have a long walk ahead of us. If we bought the bus, we had to figure out how to move it 500 miles back to Austin, Texas over the next four days.
Inside the house, Keith presented me with a piece of paper that he had just typed up on the computer. It was a contract that he wanted me to sign; stating that he “strongly discouraged” the three of us from purchasing the bus, due to its ongoing and growing list of problems. I looked to the warriors for affirmation and received it, so I signed my name. We handed over the cash and shook hands. “You girls are very brave,” Keith said. “I wish you the best of luck.” Lois gave us hugs, and we promised to send them postcards when we got home. We pulled out more gifts from our packs; more soaps, candles, coffee, and tea. After more hugs and a few group pictures, we were ready to get going.
We climbed onto the bus with our backpacks and closed the door. We were alone on the bus, for the first time. After a celebration warrior dance, we decided to call AAA to tow us to the next city. AAA was one of our back up plans. We signed up for RV coverage with AAA just days before we left, so we knew that we could be towed five times for 100 miles over the next few days if we had to. As we waited for the tow truck, a farm truck pulled into the driveway and two mechanics climbed out. “Hey! We are here to help you girls out!” one said. “What are you talking about?? Where did you come from?” We were so excited and confused at the same time! Apparently, the mechanic that was supposed to pick us up in Tulsa, but would not return our phone calls, sent his friends out to check on us. One of the mechanics crawled under the bus and started turning valves and kinking off hoses. “Okay, start her up! Let’s try to drive her!” Silence. “Umm… can you show us how to do this?” The mechanics shook their heads and laughed at us. After a quick tutorial, we figured out how to turn the bus on and off, and how to apply and release the air brakes. Soon we were rolling down the driveway and made our first turn. Sun Warrior pressed on the brakes to test them out and the brakes refused to release! Stuck in the middle of a one-lane red dirt road, we turned the bus off and let the pressure drop. We started the bus up again and let the pressure in the brakes build back up. The mechanics had to leave us, so we thanked them and gave them big hugs and said goodbye.
Once again we were on our own, this time ready to drive her away for real. The tow truck was still on its way, but we wanted to see how far we could get on our own. We drove down the red dirt road towards the main farm road, careful to not press on the brakes. Instead, we just down shifted to slow down. As long as we didn’t use the brakes, we were golden. We made it to Cincinnati Tire Repair, the shop where the mechanic that was originally going to fix the bus and pick us up in Tulsa works. We greeted Chris inside his shop, who seemed kind of impressed that we had made it to Siloam Springs without his help. Chris had given us a warning earlier that morning that maybe we should just go back home and buy a dependable school bus for our travels. We sat in the parking lot of the shop for close to an hour when Chris came outside to look at the bus. I think he realized that we weren’t going to go away. Chris was not able to fix the sticky brakes, but he did tighten some loose belts around the crankshaft pulley.
The tow truck company called to let us know that the tow truck would be there soon, and he could only carry two riders. When we explained that there were three of us, they told us to call a taxi. In the middle of nowhere, Arkansas. I told him that we were all small girls, so maybe we could all fit, and we couldn’t just leave one behind. They cited policy issues, or something. So it was then decided that Sun Warrior would hide inside of the bus during the tow. We crammed the sleeping bag behind the seats and piled random junk around her after she crawled into the tiny space behind the seat. A few minutes later the tow truck arrived. The driver was a really nice guy in his late-40s probably, and kept Moon Warrior and I laughing the entire time. As we drove south, with Bessie holding on for dear life behind us, we took notice of the chicken farms that stretched for miles and miles. Every ‘farm’ that we passed had a row of grey buildings in the middle of an empty field. It’s not quite how I imagined a farm when I was growing up, with pigs rolling around in the mud, the cows munching on fresh hay, and hens prancing around with a row of chicks following close behind. No, these farms were not full of happy chickens. These chickens were pumped full of growth hormones and set on light timers. I asked the driver, “Theoretically, what would happen if we just went and gave the chickens some fresh air?” He responded with a nervous laugh and said, “Oh well, if you are going to do something like that, you gotta do it at night, okay?” I nodded and told him “I just want them to see the sun before they die, that’s all.” He agreed, but told me that the chickens would probably die if they got out. They are going to die anyways.
Moon Warrior had to use the bathroom, so the tow truck pulled over and let her run into the woods. The driver took a piss on Bessie’s nose, which maybe gave her a quick nitrogen boost. Finally, we got back into the truck and continued driving south.
We pulled in to Muldrow, Oklahoma around 8:30pm and unloaded at a diesel repair shop off of the interstate. A mechanic that had been expecting us pulled up to the bus to say hello. The tow truck driver spoke to Randy, the mechanic, privately for a few minutes. I have a feeling that he was telling Randy about our ‘situation’. Our situation being that we were three young girls camping in a piece-of-shit broken down bus without much money 420 miles from home. We said goodbye to the driver and the mechanic and closed ourselves up inside of the bus. It was close to 40 degrees outside, so we lit a bunch of candles on the empty floor to keep ourselves warm. We had one big sleeping bag between the three of us, so we put on all of the clothes that we packed and huddled together.
The next morning, we drove the bus to an auto parts store in town to stock up on fluids and filters. We met a lot of really nice people while we were gathering supplies. One of those people was named Beau. Beau used to live in Austin, but moved back home to Muldrow last year. Beau saw us looking into Bessie’s guts in the parking lot of the NAPA auto parts store, and asked if we needed help. Soon we had a crowd of curious onlookers gathered around the engine compartment, trying to locate the oil filter and figure out belt sizes. We were saved by Clay, a mechanic from across the street who showed us how to measure the distance between the pulleys to figure out the size of the belts, and pointed out the oil filter underneath the bus. We spent the day in the auto store parking lot, studying our bus parts book and trying to figure out how we were going to get two bolts extracted from our harmonic balancer that broke off inside of the pulley. Clay came back later in the day to check on our progress. After a long conversation with Clay and Randy (the first mechanic), we decided to take the bus to Clay the next morning to get us all sorted out. Beau was also checking up on us throughout the day, and invited us to stay at his house that night so we could shower, eat, and be warm.
We woke up the next day feeling so good and clean and ready to continue our adventure. Clay started working on the bus at 8am sharp, and worked non-stop on the bus for his entire shift. While he worked to extract the broken bolts, Sun Warrior changed out the radiator belts, and Moon Warrior and I changed out the fuel filter. Clay also temporarily fixed a coolant leak, and patch welded two leaks in our air tanks. As the sun started to sink late in the day, Clay announced that we were ready to go! With Clay behind the wheel, we took the bus on a test drive down the road. We did a victory dance up and down the aisle in the bus, unable to contain our excitement. Back at the mechanic shop, we surrounded Clay with a group hug and thanked him a million times for fixing us up.
Finally, we were on our way! We said goodbye to everyone that we met in Muldrow and promised to send postcards. We found the interstate out of town and drove away into the sunset.
11 miles later we pulled over at a truck stop to inspect a soft banging sound in the engine compartment. I climbed out and opened the engine compartment. All of our belts were gone!!! All three belts that spin the crankshaft and the alternator were completely gone, and the harmonic balancer was wobbling again. I reached inside to feel for the bolts. Another bolt had broken in half. I shined my flashlight underneath the frame and found a partially shredded belt hanging down under the bus. This bus was really testing my patience.
I called my brother-in-law for advice. My brother made a few phone calls and told us to get to Atoka, Oklahoma, where his best friend has a diesel repair shop. Atoka was 130 miles south. It was close to midnight, and we were at an empty truck stop in the middle of nowhere (actually, I think all of Oklahoma is in the middle of nowhere). We decided to call up AAA again and get our second tow. Our limit is a 100 miles per tow, and $3 a mile after that. Our options were to pay $100 to go the rest of the way, or make the tow truck driver drop us off after 100 miles and try to limp the remaining 30 miles to Atoka. We agreed to pay the $100, and the other warriors climbed into the back of the tow truck and fell asleep. A few miles into the trip, the tow truck driver told me that since our bus required a heavy duty tow, it’s actually $6 a mile, so it’s going to be $200. I told him that we couldn’t afford it, and to just drop us off at a truck stop as close to the 100 mile mark as possible. It was almost 5 in the morning at this point, and I’m wide awake trying to make sure the tow truck driver stays awake too. He tells me about his history with methamphetamine’s and how he has turned his life around. He has two little girls now, and he has been sober for four months. Amazingly, we discover we lived in the same apartment complex in Austin, decades apart! We are nearing the 100 mile mark, and he asks me if it’s only $100, would I want to go the rest of the 30 miles to Atoka? Yes!!! I was so thankful! It was nearly 6am, and I could barely keep my eyes open.
We unloaded at a Love’s truck stop in Atoka. Bessie was wedged between two 18-wheelers behind the store. We stood out like a circus tent in the morning fog, with our bright orange and white stripes. By 8am, we were pulling into Harold’s diesel repair shop. We met Harold, a tall stout guy that reminded me of my brother-in-law. Harold told us that we were brave girls for buying this bus. As a mechanic, he wasn’t sure that he would have taken on such a project. “Or maybe I would…” he said, half-jokingly.
By late afternoon, Harold and his team had extracted one of the bolts (the other one is really stuck), put on three new belts, re-welded the holes in the air tanks that had reopened, re-fixed a coolant leak that was leaking again, and welded a crack in the oil pan caused by the last tow truck. We group-hugged Harold and his sons good-bye and drove off into the sunset.
A few miles down the road and we were still driving! We tried to hold off on any victory dances. By dark we were crossing the Red River into Texas, and celebrated by screaming out the window. Sun Warrior perched herself on the dash and we sang songs while she played the ukulele. The bus was already feeling like home!
We made it to Temple, Texas before we began hearing a faint noise in the engine. Once again, we pulled off to check it out. Another broken bolt! The harmonic balancer seemed firm and stable, but we made the decision to call the tow truck for the remaining 73 miles home. We knew it was only a matter of time before the belts flew off again.
So now the bus is sitting in our driveway at R.O.O.T.S. EcoVillage in Austin. There is an ever growing list of “to-do’s” before we can get Bessie on the road.
Bessie’s Maintenance List:
a. extract broken bolts from the harmonic balancer
b. New vibration damper (harmonic balancer)
c. (2) new air tanks
d. finish welding the crack in the oil pan
e. fix the blinkers
f. fix the windshield wipers
g. install a horn
h. (6) new tires
i. repair or replace driver side brake biscuit
R.A.G.E. Project List:
a. (2) solar panels
b. composting toilet
c. DIY wood burning stove
d. insulate floors, walls, ceiling
e. design/build garden box in the dash
f. LED lighting on ceiling
g. WVO (waste veggie oil) conversion
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