Skoolie Sighting at Surf City Laundromat

Couple Embarks on Yearlong North American Road Trip
By VICTORIA FORD | Jul 05, 2017
Photo by: Chris Seiz

Not all who wander are lost. When Maryann “Lily” Sloan and Steve Shepherd parallel-parked their schoolbus-turned-motor home, with Toyota Solara convertible in tow, out in front of the Surf City Laundromat Sunday morning, it was hard to miss.

Sloan and Shepherd are self-identified “Skoolies,” i.e., members of a community of bus conversion enthusiasts who purchase decommissioned school buses and transform them into functional recreation or living spaces.

Having packed up and left their home behind in Richmond, Va., Sunday was Day 5 of the couple’s yearlong North American road trip that is planned to take them up the coast and into Canada and across the Midwest, down to Texas and eventually to Alaska, in search of a new life wherever they decide to buy a lot, park the bus and build a cabin. They were making their way to Liberty Park for the Independence Day celebration and fireworks show, for which they had bought tickets, but feared they would be out of luck, given the state park closures due to New Jersey’s budget impasse and government shutdown of nonessential services. They ended up on LBI simply because they wanted to find a laundromat and go to the beach ­– a quick internet search told them they could do both in Surf City.

With their doors open and time to spare, the pair welcomed curious visitors and were happy to share the story of their project and plans for the journey ahead. Sloan is originally from Texas, and Shepherd grew up in California. Each has a grown son and daughter. The two met just two years ago in Richmond, quickly figured out they were perfect for each other, and moved in together in a rented cabin.

They realized a longtime dream when they pooled their resources and bought their bus for $6,000 from a school district in Prince William County in August 2016, and in only nine months (including the two months Shepherd was recuperating from knee surgery) they had torn out the 77 seats and completely redone it.

Now, hanging in the sitting area is the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote “There are all kinds of love in this world, but never the same love twice.”

Shepherd’s a heavy haul truck driver specializing in crane and rigging, with a creative eye and a passion for photography; Sloan is a nurse with Amedisys Home Health, specializing in care transitions. Both have the flexibility to work anywhere. For now, Shepherd’s job is “Driving Miss Maryann,” he said. Shepherd has already completed 17 cross-country road trips; friends liken him to Jack Kerouac. He’s the carefree type, and she’s the multitasker (in need of some “bus therapy,” as Shepherd calls it). They strike the right balance.

Playing a central role in this story is the 1996 humanist poem by Linda Ellis that says life ultimately amounts to two dates, a birth and a death, separated by a dash, representing all the years of life in between. To “make the most of the dash” means to live and love life to the fullest every day.

Sloan and Shepherd named their bus Dash.

“I’m 52, he’s 50,” Sloan said. “We’re ready to do some living.”

The DIY renovation process was enlightening and challenging, with every decision thoughtfully based, of course, on practicality and space-saving solutions.

For the exterior, they opted for a “subdued” black and tan, because 1) it’s Shepherd’s favorite beverage and 2) it looks “Army,” as an homage to the servicemen in their families and 3) while they realize they can’t avoid standing out, they wanted to avoid being the kind of spectacle that attracts vandals or troublemakers.

Mission accomplished: Judging by the exterior, no one would guess at the world of wonders the bus contains.

Inside, everything is Velcroed or otherwise fastened down. The layout is purposefully sectioned into living, cooking, grooming and sleeping quarters. The first part of the interior décor was a mid-century cast iron sink, and everything fell into place around it – the Hoosier cabinet and the rest of the quaint antique touches, e.g. the vintage suitcases to hold personal items. An old bookcase on sliders fits snugly between the refrigerator and the back of the shower wall. The queen-size mattress sits atop a cargo area housing the water tank.

A bus is a weird thing, Shepherd explained, because it has two skins. He ripped out the internal skin in order to insulate the bus and install new flooring and paneling. He cut two hatches in the ceiling, to access the solar panels and the rooftop deck. They’re equipped for solar, generator and shore power. They have a composting toilet. The multi-purpose shower stall is where they store their AC/dehumidifier and hang clothes to dry.

Working out the kinks as they go along is a never-ending process of downsizing and streamlining, Sloan said. But the couple proves living minimally does not necessarily mean sacrificing comfort and convenience. “Everything I own is on this bus,” Sloan said. They have a potted plant. They have a coffeemaker.

Before they left Richmond, they underwent a great purge of material possessions, which was painful at first but put everything in a new perspective. They learned to let go of every nonessential thing and discovered “so few things are truly important,” she said. A couple of cherished family heirlooms (china cabinet, cedar chest) went to the kids, and a couple of mementos (Shepherd’s mom’s recipe box, Sloan’s mom’s small painting of “The Last Supper”) became part of their new everyday #buslife.

After four nights, they had slept in a Walmart parking lot (who knew? – Sam Walton is a big supporter of the RV lifestyle and welcomes overnight campers) and at Fort Monroe, an Army base on the Chesapeake Bay dating back to 1609.

After 17 cross-country treks, Shepherd has observed and concluded much about humanity. For one thing, he said, in terms of infrastructure and architecture, “it’s amazing to me how much of the country is abandoned.” On a more personal level, he said, “If you just watch the news, you get so jaded” about the state of the world. But in taking time to meet and listen to strangers, he has found more goodness in people than he would have imagined.

Sloan and Shepherd’s travel route has been designed around visiting friends and family, in Prince Edward Island, Niagara, Canada and Ohio, and seeing a few “bucket list” sights, including New England and the Dakotas. One goal is to reach Sloan’s hometown of Spur, Texas, for Homecoming, the first weekend in October. They’ll spend Thanksgiving in Mississippi with Sloan’s kids, and Christmas in California with Shepherd’s. They’ll end up in Alaska by the spring.

Follow the adventures of “Lily and Shep” on Instagram @steveshepherd66.

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