On the Run: A Covid Conversion
By Alexis Mercer
1 bus conversion to RV
We sat on the beach in the summer of 2019 and I listened to my husband plotting with my cousin's husband, John. I was used to this kind of talk. “Let’s build a floating oasis….” or some other kind of grand scheme. They were full of ideas. This time it was “We need to buy a bus and turn it into an RV.” His wife Stephanie and I just smiled and nodded.
“Yes, I’m sure,” we said with a knowing look. We had been here before. All talk. No action.
Fast forward to summer of 2020. The world had been in quarantine since March. Adam was, against my better judgment of course, taking an Amtrak to New Jersey where he had just purchased a 24’ school bus sight unseen. He would immediately turn around and drive it home so as to avoid any hotels.
I couldn’t even begin to contain my shock that this was happening.
“We will have it done by next summer so we can go on vacation even if everything is still shut down,” says Adam.
It wasn’t until the bus pulled in the driveway, extendable stop sign and all, that I figured I better get on board for this project, otherwise I would be left in the dust.
Demolition quickly began, giving our family a project to enjoy together and a long term goal to look forward to despite the despair of the state of the world in a pandemic. We knew next to nothing about renovating a bus. But no time like the present to figure it out.
YouTube videos came in handy. We researched best practices for making this a truly livable and enjoyable experience. We drew out a rough sketch of what we were thinking to make it work for our family of 5. We made a long, long list of what we needed and off we went.
Once the bus was gutted it was time to make decisions about materials that would go back in.
Adam: “Let’s get our own trees milled.”
Me: blank stare
Adam: “No, really. We will cut them down from the property and the tree at your parents’ house that has to come down anyway and I’ll get them milled.”
Me: blank stare
Most people buy wood. Not my husband. Nope. So off we go trying to figure out how to get the massive tree my parents had cut down onto our trailer to get to the Amish to cut. Then I got to enjoy it drying in my garage for the winter months. Who needs two parking spots anyway?
In the meantime we had my dad’s assistance installing the floor. We chose vinyl planks due to their versatility and ease in caring for them. This after the insulation went on the floor and every wall. I remembered the days of riding the school bus in the cold. I wasn’t interested in feeling that freezing again.
Slowly but surely we made improvements. We found a dinette on Facebook Marketplace for $40. A foldout couch removed from a nearly brand new RV for $50. We planned on a bathroom (with just a portable toilet to avoid the difficulty of black water), as much storage room as possible and a kitchen area with a sink.
Once it came time to use the trees, Adam’s dad came in to help with building cabinets, the doors and shelves. His mom did all the staining since by this time we were back to work and school full time in person and some of the smaller details were getting hard to do on our own! Plus she is an expert, so why not let it get done correctly?
For the fridge, sink, and any other electric needs we installed an inverter. We would also bring a generator in case we were camping anywhere without electric for an extended period of time.
My spring joy came from choosing dishes, towels, and accessories. Not too many, of course, because the last thing we wanted was to be stuck in a bus for hours upon hours without any room to even move! I managed to keep it simple.
Choosing paint colors was one of those parts of the project that made me just shake my head. Adam’s vision was to make it like the original Eddie Bauer Bronco colors. Deep blue and tan. But paint colors don’t work the same as just finding an RGB value of a photo of an old Bronco. No, that would be too easy.
What did we end up with? Buckskin and Medium Royal Blue. Which, in my opinion, sounded nothing like what he was going for. I mean...Buckskin? Ugh.
But I’ll admit when applied it looks just fine.
Now that this project was becoming a reality, we allowed ourselves to start planning the trip itself. We were dreaming big. The year was so challenging for everyone. Stress was piled layer upon layer on our shoulders and even though the kids handled it all better than I’m sure we did, they still needed a break. A true vacation.
“East or West” we asked the kids?
“EAST!” they all decided. West could be the next trip. After all, our last adventure before Covid had been to Yellowstone. Time to explore a completely different part of our vast country. This way we could bring the mountain bikes the kids had all acquired during the pandemic (after months of waiting, of course, since everyone else and their brother got one of those as well).
Just the act of planning the vacation was cathartic. I ached to leave on the actual trip so I could begin the process of restoring myself to some normality. Some deep breaths in the mountain air.
The biggest issue arose only about a month before we were set to leave. The air conditioner was not working. Which we never would have known since we hadn’t used it in summer yet. But the thought of driving in the summer humidity without an air conditioner was close to panic inducing for my husband. The place we found in Big Rapids that would be able to fix it (this was outside Adam’s area of expertise) started the process. We were confident it could get done in time but we hadn’t left them enough days to receive parts by the time it got to them, so the day before we left, we picked it up and set our minds that windows down was just going to have to cut it.
Minus that one hiccup, the bus was complete and we were ready. We had done it. Not perfectly of course. But it was a true family project and we were on our way. Now to donn it with a name.
“That there’s an RV, Clark.”
I suppose it had to be named something. And so of course it had to be from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. The bus would be Uncle Eddie.
The trip ended up lasting three weeks. And it was heavenly. Exciting, relaxing, restorative. Exactly what we were dreaming of all those months. We enjoyed two weeks with my parents, sister, and her family (they all had tents while we enjoyed the luxury of the bus). Then we spent the last week exploring more just as our little family.
Nothing could dull the vivid experience. It poured rain for a few days but Eddie was a dry refuge. We traveled hours upon hours on end to get to our next destination but Eddie gave us a way to rest and still relax while on the road. It was a record hot day in the East as we neared New York City but Eddie kept cool in the campsite on the Hudson. Mountains and rivers and valleys and waterfalls. Uncle Eddie got us there.
The variety of the stops on the trip were what made it most exciting.
Niagara Falls, New York: Branches of Niagara Campground
New Hampshire: Monadnock State Park (Gilson Pond Area)
Acadia National Park, Maine: Bass Harbor Campground
Freeport, Maine: Wolfe’s Neck Campground
Massachusetts: Wompatuck State Park
Boston (day trip)
Nantasket to swim in the ocean (day trip)
New Jersey: Liberty Harbor Campground
New York City (took the ferry over for this day trip): 9/11 Memorial Museum, Times Square
Pennsylvania: Ben Franklin RV Park
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia: Mathews Arm Campground
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia: Big Meadows Campground
Pocahontas County, West Virginia: Watoga State Park, Beaver Creek Campground
Pocahontas County, West Virginia: Watoga State Park, Riverside Campground
We soaked in all this trip had to offer. Campfires, s’mores, the ocean spraying us with its powerful surf, the city streets, the Green Monster, hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail, finding new biking paths, Beech Mountain in Acadia National Park, navigating busy streets and the opposite - finding our way in the mountains of West Virginia inside the 13,000 acres of zero cell service and no GPS.
We read books, we laughed, we rested, we wore ourselves out with adventure. We showered when we could and found rivers when no showers were to be found.
I ran everywhere we went. Trails upon trails galore. Once, while in Wompatuck State Park, I was about to jump in Heron Pond, a tiny but unbelievably pristine pond back in the woods, when what popped up to greet me, only inches from my face? The biggest snapping turtle I had ever seen. Followed by another one, who topped the first one’s size, and started fighting the first. I changed my mind about the swim. I like keeping my toes.
I even came across a bear on my run in the Blue Ridge Mountains and made it out alive. (He really didn’t even care that I was there...but let me tell ya...I cared he was there.)
One late afternoon I sat on top of a rock overlooking a 97’ waterfall and the skyline full of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I had descended nearly 900 feet from the campground to get there, so I knew my run back up would be intense. But all I could do was soak in the breathtaking beauty of the scene in front of me.
All the months of stress leading up to this moment left me one breath at a time. I was by myself and couldn’t see another human for hundreds of miles. This was exactly what I had needed. I was flooded with relief; the peace I had been seeking.
And it all started two years ago with two guys on a beach and a brilliant idea...
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