The Journey Of A Bus Conversion
I stood in line for the tills at Homesense recently watching the clerk awkwardly struggling to fit two plastic bags over a giant, sparkly green reindeer in a tinsel skirt as the woman taking home this strange object stood by impatiently. I observed this scene take place with interest, not so much because I was judging her taste in holiday décor; no, I was simply disturbed by this real-life example of exactly how packed full our lives have become to warrant a demand for glittery reindeer maidens assembled in China.
The good news is that the more we are consumed by clutter, the stronger the movement grows to counteract this symptom of the modern condition.
Early last fall, my best friend, Erika, was suffering the side effects of a high-stress, thankless job and decided the time for something more was long overdue. Within the span of a couple months, she left her job, gave notice to her landlady and bought a boat she would moor and live on in Cowichan Bay. Her motive was a simpler way of living, and she did not waste any time in making the vision her reality.
This journey of hers has been a wild one. The past year she spent acclimatizing to living on 30 feet of floating space before realizing that the super-concentrated small-town-vibe of marina life didn’t properly align with the vision she’d had in mind (imagine a steady flow of neighbours dropping by at all times of day to gossip about the latest goings-on). After spending the summer months tree-planting in the interior, she returned home eager to evolve her plans into something better-suited to her needs: a school bus conversion. With the Universe working in her favour, she soon found the perfect match: a 20 foot, pre-gutted bus ready to be made over into the ultimate mobile micro-home.
Erika kindly to agreed talk with me about her move towards the simpler life, and what she has planned for converting her bus into a dream home.
Was there any one particular thing that served as the driving force in choosing to downsize your life – a certain point of no return?
I have to say yes. It took a long time to get there, but ultimately, it was sudden illness that forced me into it. Not the actual repercussions of the illness itself (I was lucky – there weren’t any), but my understanding of what made me sick in the first place. For many people, the things we own are a direct representation of ourselves and our general effectiveness at being human. Our stuff’s monetary value proves to the world around us that we are somebody, that we are worth it. It’s about the emotional response we evoke in other people upon their acknowledgement of our material “achievements”. We like making people jealous. It feels good. It’s human nature.
Those achievements (the condo, the car, the designer clothes, the sweet haircut, the epic vacation) don’t come cheap, though, as most of us know (read: mortgage, car payment, multiple credit card payments, and the line of credit for last year’s Euro trip). Here is where we enter a world of 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, to earn the ka-ching (or at least get financing approval) to pay for those must-haves.
We get a job to pay for the stuff and begin extracting ourselves from our own innate wants, wishes and wonders to spend eight hours per day using our effort and energy to someone else’s end. And, that’s if you are one of the lucky ones. I know I’m not able to flip a switch at the end of the day and go into “home mode”, as much as I try to. I tend to rehash the day in my mind, always thinking about how this interaction went, how that project is doing, whether I left the coffee cream out. I’ve got other obligations to fulfill as well, so if I’m stressed out (*cough* uh, CONSTANTLY), I barely get wound down by Sunday, only to be back at the grind on Monday morning. Unless it’s my (pre-planned to the tits) annual three week vacation, I’m always on the at-work vibe, even if I’m only parked on my couch for the evening. Repeat this cycle for a few years and see what happens. It literally takes time to change gears, relax, to tap into having fun, even just to think up the next fun thing to do. That’s how we recharge ourselves energetically, making it possible for us go to our jobs and plug away at something that probably isn’t our life’s passion.
I found myself worn out, with no time to have fun and no time to be me, and it felt like I was staring down a 36 year-long gun barrel. Of course, by all accounts of “success”, I had it. A long term, stable, well-paid and well-respected position working on behalf of the provincial government, topped off by health benefits and that all-important pension promise. Who was I to complain? I had a job lots of people would clamber over each other to have, but the restrictive tether instead served to make me into an unpleasant cranky-bag with no optimism for my future. The whole stress mess resulted in an extreme case of Labrynthitis (middle ear-related nausea), four days in hospital and two more weeks off work. I finally had time to think. I took a step back and drew some pretty pessimistic conclusions: I need stuff to live. I need money to get stuff. I need a job to get money. A job takes my time and makes me hate my life. I DON’T WANNA PLAY THIS GAME.
I wanted to spend less of my time working on other people’s ideas, period. I needed to clear my energy. To afford myself time, I must (at present) sacrifice money. To sacrifice money I must reduce my living expenses. The less money I need to live the more time I have to do whatever the fuck I want (hehe! rebellion is brewing!).
I decided it was time to give up my single biggest financial obligation: paying rent. But I didn’t want to buy real estate, either. Being on the southern coast of Vancouver Island makes living aboard a boat a totally viable (and may I say, socially acceptable) way of providing a suitable abode for me and my dog, without throwing thousands of dollars at someone else’s mortgage or tying myself into my own.
So, I quit my job and bought a boat.
How did your family and friends respond to your decision to live on a boat?
Well, my grandpa lived on a sailboat for number of years in his mid and later life, so the concept was not new to my family. This is probably why I chose this familiar route of lifestyle simplification; I tremble at the prospect of disapproval from those in my inner circle. Disapproval creates tension and tension is uncomfortable. I enjoy comfort in all aspects of my life. My friends were a little harder to convince for the good, but merely because of the physical distance my chosen location put between us!
I know moving into a smaller space meant letting go of a large part of your belongings. How did you manage this process? Did you have any sort of system in place to determine what stayed and what went?
A long time ago I heard somewhere “if it isn’t beautiful or useful, get it gone” as a means of deciding whether an object is worthy of space in your home in an effort to reduce clutter, so I had a cute little house chock full of exceptionally beautiful and really useful items. Ha. I think that made getting rid of it all a wee bit tougher, but maybe a wee bit sweeter, too. Possessions equal responsibility and I’d had enough!
I imagined my new life aboard, and it was easy to see that the stainless steel lidded nesting bowls were by far the smart decision over anything aesthetic, what with minimal space for only one type of food storage. Better make it the best one, ’cause I only get one.
First thing, I gave myself a reasonable deadline: all would be dealt with by x date. Then, I went through each room and decided what would come with me, NOT what wouldn’t. Once I’d picked out the best of my life-facilitating stuff, I organized the rest into four categories:
1.) FOR SALE: the goods. In my case, mid-century teak furniture, a flat panel television, a caribou hide – anything people covet and will pay for. And, bonus: I made the equivalent of a tax-free pay cheque-and-a-half from my Craigslist ads.
2.) GIVEAWAYS: usually stuff with sentimental value or sellable items that don’t receive any interest in your specified timeframe. I pawned this stuff off on my close friends and family, albeit carefully. You don’t want to dump crap on people. They’ll just get rid of it and become uncomfortable about it. Consider the appropriateness of the gift to the receiver, and make sure they know there’s no obligation to keep the item.
3.) CHARITABLE DONATIONS: this is the I-want-it-out-of-my-life-NOW pile. The stuff occupying this pile is all decent, useable stuff, just in excess. A lot of my wardrobe ended up here. So did the entire contents of my junk drawer (ahhh… that one felt good!). And you can’t beat the positive karma points, either.
4.) GARBAGE: yep, regretfully. There wasn’t much that absolutely no one would be able to use, but there was some.
It took me about five weeks at a moderate pace to become stuff-free. I don’t like living in complete chaos for long, so initially I made lists rather than actually creating monstrous piles of stuff, but hey, whatever works for you. Some people are very visually-stimulated, and real piles can be very motivating.
What made you eventually decide on a school bus conversion?
I found that one’s lack of mariner chops can really put a damper on one’s ability to feel secure on so unpredictable a creature as the wide blue ocean. Turns out I don’t like the water, much. With any luck the bus conversion will provide similar payment-free square footage with far less holding-on-for-dear-life.
Many people are skeptical about being able to function in a small space. What do you see as the benefits of micro-living? Do you have any reservations about making a bus into your home?
I am able to perform all the daily activities I did before moving into my tiny-living lifestyle, and most items just become multi-purpose, so both my life and my stuff are collaterally easier to maintain and keep track of. It does take a relatively well-organized person to thrive in a small space, but is that a bad thing? Organization is certainly something that can be learned if you don’t come pre-wired that way, and it is far more achievable when there’s less stuff requiring order.
Privacy can be an issue for folks who aren’t solo, as everyone needs to be able to shut out the world sometimes, and being forced into a shoebox with your significant other can make you want to stab your (their) eyes with forks. When it’s necessary to make room for two in a space many would consider inadequate for one, the trick is to get creative with the use of the space. If a couple is considering a live-aboard boat situation, they could choose one that has a forward berth and rear salon, or if it’s a tiny house, they could make sure there’s a separate loft away from the main space.
As far as whether I have any reservations, I suppose the main one would be that unlike public water, public land isn’t really available for my permanent residence. And to revisit the social acceptability of my chosen lifestyle, “living out of a van” is not exactly the pinnacle of success in the eyes of the majority. Slowly I’m learning not to care what others think about me and the conclusions they draw regarding my life. I am intent on providing for myself in a way that makes me truly happy, not just “successful”. I was successful, and it sucked.
If location became an issue (where I am forced into the city as a means of making money) and I was so inclined, I could make a parking arrangement with a land owner in the vicinity of my livelihood, but right now I’m looking forward to sweet, solitary, boondocking.
What do you anticipate will be the most challenging part of this conversion?
Probably the fact that I have nearly no construction skills at all. Most people who undertake a “skoolie” RV conversion, as they’re called, custom-build the furniture and cabinetry to fit the interior of the bus themselves, usually out of plywood. For me, this is not an option. However, as we know, where there’s a will, there’s a way, and oh baby, I’ve got a will.
Enter pre-fab, lightweight, screw-together Ikea components! Specifically three sink cabinets and a free standing wall unit, all of which will be bolted to the interior wall and floor to provide the majority of the storage and kitchen work space. A click-clack settee from Craigslist is the perfect sofa-cum-bed, simple laminated shelving will be installed as a counter top and another piece as a fold-down table surface. All skills required by this plan I’ve demonstrated well in the past. I CAN have what I want! I just had to think outside the box to get it.
What are your plans for heating? For cooking? What about the bathroom?
I will install a simple solar panel/battery bank system for tech necessities, and I decided that a wood burning stove is the most effective heating method for my purpose. It took a lot of research, but I finally discovered a model that is not too big, nor too expensive, nor double walled on top, so as to allow the option of cooking. It’s the mighty Mini 12 CT, manufactured by Gray Stoveworks of Pennsylvania, USA. A real beaut.
Cooking might happen on top of the Mini 12 on occasion, but more likely I will employ my propane powered Camp Chef stove/oven combo for use on a daily basis.
The bathroom is an easy one! Gone are the days of having to deal with black tank sewage systems in RVs, boats or tiny house trailers, and the inherent evils those systems always harbour. Instead, I am installing a completely self contained crapper of high repute: the Nature’s Head Composting Toilet. Yep, I’ve heard that composting toilets can be stinky, but the risk of stink is directly related to the amount of urine that is allowed to sneak into the solids container. I am responsible for me and my bodily functions only. I have every reason to believe I am generally capable of keeping the two actions separate, and will thus able to escape the stink. It’s worth a shot.
Can you offer any wisdom for anyone who might be trying to achieve a simpler way of living?
When considering the visbility of simplifying your own life, get over the “yeah, buts” and just do it. Don’t get me wrong. Think about the buts, but work ’em out and get over them. The best thing you can do in preparation for any type of change is to plan around (to plan ahead means you’re only looking in one direction) and avoid surprises. Think things through, ask the what-ifs, weigh the pros and cons. Be realistic when considering how you really operate, and honest about what you really desire. Success in giving up stuff and reclaiming your time requires that your method of adjusting be a made-to-suit kind of situation. My way of simplification worked for me because I have a good idea of what I’m apt to do and how I might react in any given situation. No cookie-cutter life fixes for me, because I am not a gingerbread man, and neither are you. Plan with the real you in mind.
Progressive change can be awkward, but living life tied to a paycheque, full of stress and boredom, is not really living at all.