An interview with Fern the Bus / by Calum Creasey

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  • Introduce yourselves; where are you originally from and how did you meet?

We’re Ben and Mande from Holland, Michigan. After completing school, we both bounced from our hometown to seek adventure and new experiences. I (Ben) had been living in a school bus with my best friends.  We called the project The Lost Bus (L.O.S.T. being an acronym for Lending Our Services Travelling).  We explored the country while volunteering our time and skills, helping individuals and organisations throughout the journey.  Mande had been living in the mountains of Utah, working as a school teacher and exploring the beauty of the West. In June of 2011 we both moved back to Holland to spend the summer with friends and family.  After meeting through a mutual friend, we exchanged stories and were immediately drawn to each other’s sense of adventure and appreciation for the outdoors.

  • Your rig; can you tell us the make, model and year of your rolling home?

Fern is a 24 foot 1992 International school bus with a 7.3 Diesel engine.

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  • Fern the Bus; how did you come to own such an amazing vehicle- was it a long term ambition or a spur of the moment purchase?

Fern was a dream for years before we finally found the right bus.  Ben, having built and lived in a bus years earlier, had always dreamed of building another one.  Fern had it all—low mileage, very little rust, a strong diesel engine, and that classic old school look.

  • The build out; the bus is now your part time home, how long did it take you to convert? What was your way of approaching such a large and ambitious build?

We bought her as a yellow school bus one year ago.  With full time jobs and limited spare time, we squeezed the projects into nights and weekends.  We stayed motivated by dreaming of the upcoming adventures she’d bring us on.  We knew she’d introduce us to new people and places, and shake us out of our routines and habits.  This anticipation kept us motivated and working hard through the cold dark Michigan winter.  We forced ourselves to do at least one thing every day to bring the project closer to completion.  Eventually, those little efforts added up to big results and soon she was resembling our dream home.  She’s a continual work in progress and probably will never be 100% complete.  There will always be little added features and mini renovations as we live in the bus and adapt to the lifestyle.

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  • The interior is unlike most conversions in many ways; you seem to have an abundance of natural light and of course a large amount of space. What do you feel are the most important interior design choices when converting a vehicle into a home?

We made a point to keep the interior open, clean and uncluttered.  The white paint helps the space feel open and airy.  As a school bus, Fern inherently has tall ceilings; after building up the floors, there is still 6 feet of headroom which prevents the space from feeling cramped.  We kept all the windows, which brings the outside in and brings us new views every day.  Every square foot of interior space was thoughtfully considered and there is a place for everything to be stored out of site.

  • What were your main reasons for choosing a large vehicle, and what are the pros and cons of calling it home- for instance do you need a special license to drive it? Does it require a large amount of upkeep and maintenance?

For us, Fern strikes the perfect balance of being a large and spacious home, while also being manoeuvrable and compact enough to take us almost anywhere.  Her interior is roomy and comfortable enough to live in long-term.  Her wheel-base is short, and if we can hang her back end over a curb, we fit perfectly in a normal-sized parking space.  Fern is titled as a motor home, so there is no special license required to drive her.  

She’s equipped with a 5-speed manual transmission, which could be intimidating to some at first.  However, it has been a blessing that offers us more control, particularly in the steep Rocky Mountain passes we’ve been travelling lately.  Her big diesel engine is a steady workhorse, known for reliability and longevity.  It’s a simple engine, naturally aspirated and mechanically injected.  We’re far from being mechanics, but we’re learning, and we’re thankful her engine is from the era before one needed to be a computer programmer to repair an engine.  We won’t be winning any races in Fern, but she’s been taking us everywhere we want to go.

  • Alternative living; there are many reasons to live in a compact mobile space, whether it  be financial freedom, an eagerness to see the world or to be more environmentally conscious. What would you say are your main motivations?

As we grow older, time seems to be flying by at an increasingly rapid rate.  For us, habits and routine had been contributing to this time-warp.  Building and living in the bus has been our deliberate decision to shake things up, switch gears and shift momentum in a new direction.  We’re motivated to live this way because of the heightened awareness that comes with it, the vivid and distinct memories.  We’re motivated to be out on the road to meet people we wouldn’t otherwise encounter and to turn strangers into friends.

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  • Through social media you have connected with a large amount of people, how have you found this experience? The bus itself is very eye catching, do you find that you are approached by passers by and fellow travellers alike?

The ability to connect with thousands of people through social media is incredible!  We’ve been encouraged by kind words from people all over the world.  We’re thankful there are so many incredible people out there doing unique things and sharing their experiences through the Internet.  We’ve gained inspiration from countless others who’ve shared their story, and we hope in some small way we might do the same for someone else.  

Fern attracts all kinds, and we love the people she draws in and connects us with.  Being a one-of-a-kind rig, people tend to be intrigued enough to pop their head in and say hello.  We’re so optimistic because of the kind people we encounter every single day!

  • You have also travelled with friends Matt & Emily (@alwayshomebus) who own a similar bus, how was this experience? How important is travelling and seeing new places with friends?

Matt and Emily (@alwayshomebus) bought their bus (Birdie) shortly after we began our project, and since then we’ve been partnering up as often as possible.  Our buses are identical, built in succession at the same factory 25 years ago.  As we built our homes off the same template, collaboration throughout the construction process was invaluable.  With our heads together, we were more confident, creative and resourceful.  Of course, work sessions were more fun and productive when we tackled the more daunting projects in tandem.

Since completing the project, travelling together has been the ideal scenario.  We understand the pace of bus life and we’re right in tune as we venture down the road together.  Fern and Birdie are a natural fit, just like their owners.  It’s been wonderful to experience new places, people and life on the road with lifelong friends!

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  • How long do you plan to travel and live in Fern? What destinations have you visited so far and where do you hope to travel to on your journey?

When we built Fern, we imagined her being in our life for the long haul.  We hope that with her low mileage and solid condition, we will be travelling around with her for decades to come.  Our recent travels have taken us through the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota.  We’ve revisited our old stomping grounds and reconnected with dear friends in Utah.  In Wyoming, we enjoyed the magical landscape of the Tetons and Yellowstone.  We enjoyed some quality family time with family in Montana and have been soaking up the incredible scenery, solitude and quiet star-filled nights.  We’re currently in Glacier National Park, slowly heading north into the Canadian Rockies.  Our plan is to make it all the way through Banff and Jasper before turning back east to enjoy some time in our home state of Michigan. This trip has been a beautiful introduction to a life on the road, and will leave us longing for more long-term travelling stints.  For now, we plan to be back home in the fall to reunite with family and friends, and get back to work to save up for whatever is next.

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  • Long term plans; do you see Fern as your long term home?

For now, we rely on geographically based jobs to pay our bills and our roots are in Michigan with our community of family and friends.  However, this life on the road is hooking us, and we hope for a future that will provide us the freedom to continue travelling with Fern in some capacity.

The project of transforming Fern from an old school bus into a home was such a fulfilling challenge, it left us ready for more.  We love the community of travellers, simplicity-seekers, tiny-house dwellers and out-of-the-box thinkers we’ve come to know throughout our journey.  We’ve invested in a couple other school buses, just like Fern, and we dream of transforming them into custom motor homes.  Hopefully, we’ll collaborate with the right client to bring their dreams to life with an old-school motor home of their own.

Originally published in The Rolling home Journal - Issue Three. Available here.

You can follow Ben & Mande's adventures here - @fernthebus