Have you ever dreamed of saying goodbye to your normal life and living on the road? Well, Tom McConnell did just that. He purchased an old school bus and turned it into a home. A full small house conversion–no small feat. Then, to make things even more epic, he took it on a road trip across Canada and the United Sates. We caught up with Tom to learn about living on the road, finding adventure, and the finer elements of school bus engine repair. Get ready for awesomeness, readers.
How long have you wanted to do a journey like this?
I have always done journeys like this ever since I was old enough to drive. My friends and I come from a BMX background and would always just pile into a van or a car and go off bombing around the UK or Europe. It was always a case of working just long enough to save for the next BMX trip; enough to cover fuel, food and booze for a couple of weeks. We normally traveled in a car so we often relied on the friendliness of other boxers to take us in and give us a bed and showers. It’s a great community and really breeds ones confidence in being able to travel around with little or nothing in the way of an actual plan.
How did you buy your bus, and how much did it cost? How did you know it was the right one?
I was working as a wildfire firefighter in northern Saskatchewan in 2015. I had driven up from California in a van that we had done a trip in back in 2013 and left with some friends to rust up nicely in Redding, CA. The van barely worked when I picked it up from my friend’s place! She had been sat for two years with loads of shitty fuel in the tank so when I tried to start it half of the fuel injectors clogged and she ran like shit for the whole trip up to Saskatchewan. Not to mention that the guys I had left it with had used it as something of a place to take girls for a bit of ? after parties and stuff, so the first thing I had to do was get rid of all the gross condoms off the floor. BMXers, friendly bunch, not so good on hygiene or class.
Anyway, I digress. So I drove the van to Saskatchewan on 5 out of 8 cylinders. During my summer at work I left the van parked in Prince Albert while I was up north. I kept doing research into how much it would cost to have it fixed up. It turned out it would be loads, so I started to look into replacing the van with another van. Then things started to spiral a bit. We had a pretty profitable year with a few big fires so I went from looking at small vans, to looking at camperized vans, to looking at buying a motor home, to looking at really big motor homes and just stripping them and rebuilding the inside. I guess once I reached that stage I just thought to myself, why not just buy a bus or a lorry and start it from scratch. So I spent the last month of summer ’15 looking for busses in Saskatchewan and Alberta on Kijiji.
It’s kind of everything I want from a simple life.
I found an amazing bus (1998 international in mint condition, diesel engine all perfect for $2000 CAD in Edmonton Alberta, so I took a long weekend off to go down and exchange money for bus. But when I got there the guy had sold it. My phone had run out of battery on the 16 hour drive down and he had let it go to someone else because he hadn’t been able to contact me. Fair enough I guess. I found my current bus while drowning my sorrows in a bar waiting to get a lift back to Saskatchewan. I phoned the guy who owned it from the bar I was in and agreed on a deal there and then. $1800. I didn’t actually get to see the bus for another 6 weeks after that. I just took him on his word that it ran good.
Did you make any modifications to the bus?
Yeah, massively. I bought it as a school bus (minus the seats) and did absolutely everything else on my own. I did all the initial engine work to get her running myself. I bought all the wood to line it. Cut everything and screwed everything with hand tools as it had no access to power while I was building. I did all the plumbing. Did all the electrics. It was great fun, but exhausting. It took about two months working all day every day to do it all. I have to thank my good friend Sam Nichols and his girlfriend Chelsea for letting me live in their driveway in Kamloops for the best part of a month while I finished most stuff off. And to my girlfriend Ella who did a tonne of work herself when she came out for the last month of the build.
Where did you travel, and how did you plan your route?
The bus never traveled that far initially. I bought her just outside Calgary, and once she was running I took her over the mountains to Kelowna. Ella and I lived there in her for a couple of months before moving her to Revelstoke, BC which is where she lived right up until we decided to drive her all the way across the country to Halifax Nova Scotia.
We planned the big drive around the idea that fuel would be cheaper in the States, which it was. Unfortunately, the engine gave up on us somewhere in northern Michigan (Iron River to be exact), and we were forced to spend 10 days and $4000 getting her back on the road!
Many people dream of doing something like this, buying a bus or RV and truly living the journey. Did it meet your expectations?
Yeah, above and beyond. It’s kind of everything I want from a simple life. The best bits aren’t life on the road, that stuff can actually be pretty stressful, trying to find legal places to stop, ending up in Walmart, paying for gas etc. For me the best bit about it is the times you’re stopped for a while. The place I lived in Revelstoke was absolute heaven. I was renting a field off a really nice old boy called Andy who charged me $80 a month. It was about 10k out of town and I could cycle in every day, top up groceries and use wifi if I needed it. Other than that, I had the field and the mountain views to myself. I had hiking right out of my front door and a lake at the end of the drive. Winter was the best and the worst, little sunlight meant that often the solar panels wouldn’t charge and I would be living by candlelight for ages, and not able to charge my phone. Then there was the snow and the cold. Some nights it would get down to minus 20 outside. The log burner had to be going full steam all night long just to keep it at 10 degrees inside. The snow would sometimes be so heavy that I had to wade out of my front door, which isn’t a bad thing!
Did you have any problems with the bus along the way?
Yeah, we had a mega problem on the long drive east. Before we set out on our 6000km drive across the continent I serviced the engine fully. The works, new plugs, leads, oil and fuel filters, new oil and fuel too. New trans fluid. Flushed the engine block. Air filter. Everything I could think of to give her the best chance of making it!
I was terrified that something huge like a head gasket would blow and ruin the whole trip. Well it happened and more! Even with all the prep I did I could never have foreseen what happened. One of the exhaust valves burned out which caused the cam shaft to wear badly. Depending on how much you know about engines, I may not need to tell you, this is a game ender.
The breakdown happened in the very near dead centre of our drive. It was in northern Michigan, Iron River to be exact. We found a really helpful garage who took our bus “in” for ten days while we sourced a whole new engine to replace the one that had died on us. We got so lucky with our engine, it just so happened that the only Chevy 427 big block in all of the USA was in a private garage only 5 hours south in Wisconsin. And for a really good price too. So we hired a pickup and went on an epic day trip to buy a new engine.
All in all, once the mechanics had fitted the new engine we bought our bill came to $4200 USD, nearly doubling the budget for our entire trip. We were gutted, but after phoning friends and family back in the UK, we were told we had to continue. We had come so far with our little dream that we weren’t to be stopped by something like this!
It was pretty shitty for me. I would probably have given up and left the bus there if it weren’t for Ella helping me put everything in perspective.
Did you meet any interesting characters along the way?
So many! The world is full of interesting people and often the further from a big city you get the stronger the characters.
We lived in a chap called John’s field for a while on the outskirts of Kelowna, Canada. I was looking for a place to keep the bus for a month or so while we got it insured, so I went out on my bike and cycled around all of the fruit orchards outside of town. Most people were friendly enough but weren’t willing to have a bus on their property except this one guy. In the middle of all these pristine orchards was a field of tall grass and weeds, in the middle of which was a tumble down shack. I’m never one to see divergence from normal as a bad sign so I went and knocked on his door and asked him if we could stay. He said yes, and that it would be nice to have some company as he didn’t have many friends. He was a very nice man in his early forties with a dog and couple of cats. When we first arrived he subtly made it known that he had underlying mental health issues, but came across very friendly so we thought nothing of it. As time went on his relationship with us started to change. He became obsessive over his friendship with me and wary and sceptical of Ella. Towards the end of our stay he confided in me that he was a Russian sleeper agent and had spent hours on the phone to the CIA trying to turn himself in. It was about this point where we decided it was best to slip away quietly one day, leaving a thank you note for all his help. I still think about John and hope that our departure didn’t hurt him too much or affect his delusions and paranoia.
Do you recommend others travel by bus? Would you do it again, and if so, would you do anything differently?
I absolutely would. It’s been a great life changing experience. It’s thought me so much about building stuff and I have learned so many valuable skills in the process. Sure it was expensive and most often things don’t go right first time round, but that’s just life isn’t it?
Would I do anything differently if I did it again? I’ll let you know when I buy my next one!
Are you keeping the bus?
Yeah, for sure! After all the effort we went to getting it back to the UK I couldn’t be parted with it. She’s now parked up in a field in the south of England under a shady oak tree with some horses for company. The plan is to make her even more beautiful inside (I’m guilty of living in it before fully finishing it) and then rent her out to people on holiday or festivals and weddings etc. There’s almost no skoolie conventions in the UK, so I’m hoping it will do well. Feel free to follow the business Facebook page if you want to see the progress.
What adventures have you got planned next?
I guess the plan is to see how things go running the bus as a little business and if it goes well over the first year (i.e. If I make enough to clear my shipping costs and a bit more), then I will keep my eye out for another bus, or maybe two, and bring that back too. With any luck I should be able to spend the rest of my life traveling around the world picking up cool old busses and renting them out to people in England.
Who knows. Maybe I’ll just go on another BMX trip.