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Van life: Locals build mobile dream homes

  • Brenna Morss-Fish and Josh Blair converted a short school bus into a mobile home in order to travel during the winters with their two dogs. Courtesy photo

  • Brenna Morss-Fish and Josh Blair converted a short school bus into a mobile home in order to travel during the winters with their two dogs. Courtesy photo

  • Brenna Morss-Fish and Josh Blair converted a short school bus into a mobile home in order to travel during the winters with their two dogs. Courtesy image—

  • Brenna Morss-Fish and Josh Blair converted a short school bus into a mobile home in order to travel during the winters with their two dogs. Courtesy photo—

  • Brenna Morss-Fish and Josh Blair converted a short school bus into a mobile home in order to travel during the winters with their two dogs. Courtesy

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/30/2021 4:01:01 PM

Retrofitted vans are all the rage. For some, they’re a cheap and mobile home. For others, they’re a more comfortable and practical option for extended vacations. 

That was the case for Brenna Morss-Fish, 27, and Josh Blair, 30, who had been slowly converting a school bus they bought in 2019 around this time last year. The couple likes to travel, but that’s logistically difficult with two dogs, Morss-Fish said, and the plan was to create something they could live out of while traveling during the winter, when work slows down for Morss-Fish, who had been working as a server, and Blair, who owns local sound and lighting company UpStream Sound & More.

When the pandemic left them out of work for the indefinite future, Morss-Fish and Blair doubled down on their restoration efforts, outfitting a short school bus with a 70-square-foot living space. Around Thanksgiving, they let go of their one-bedroom apartment in Peterborough and set off.

“We’ve been basically hiking when we can, biking when we can,” Morss-Fish said from Arizona, where they were camped when contacted in January. They visited some family in the Pacific Northwest first, Blair said, before working their way down the California coast. “We like winter but we don’t do very many winter activities,” Morss-Fish said. “This is a way of escaping.” Blair had recorded some music throughout their travels, and they’ve done a little rock climbing, she said.

They built out the bus with a bed and a small kitchen featuring a propane stove, a sink with running water, and a small refrigerator that runs off the engine and solar panels. A hatch opens to the roof, where they sometimes have dinner or do yoga, Morss-Fish said, and they have a hot shower setup behind the bus, although a limited water supply makes for infrequent use. A composting toilet is on standby for emergencies.

How was it once the rubber met the road? The bus is “a bit more cushy” than their previous road trips where they camped in a tent, Blair said, and there were no major mechanical issues after they fixed a problem with their turbo just days before setting off. They were comfortable on a single-digits night in the mountains of Colorado, he said, and overall, it’s been good. “We did a lot of extensive research in the building process and the lifestyle,” Blair said. They rely on a handful of apps to find free campsites and water, Morss-Fish said, such as boondocking.org.

Although there are typically knots of converted vans and trucks in the public lands they camp on, Morss-Fish and Blair mostly kept to themselves due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which also curtailed their visits to some national parks and hiking trails. They would have preferred to visit more with some of the friends they’ve made by posting about their exploits on Instagram, Morss-Fish said.

The conversion was a little more affordable than similar builds because the original bus was pretty cheap – just $2,500, Morss-Fish said, part of a mass bus fleet retirement. Altogether, the couple estimates they spent about $15,000 to obtain and convert the bus. “We’re definitely spending less than we would have staying at the apartment,” Blair said, especially when factoring in heating and living expenses. Although they could probably live in it indefinitely, they would only want to use the bus when they weren’t working, Morss-Fish said, as the dogs would be too cooped up in there otherwise. 

Although Morss-Fish said she’d encourage anyone considering a similar adventure to “just go for it,” she also encourages others to try going about it as sustainably as possible, as campsites full of trash are a frequent sight. “Free public lands [are] the shared land we’re privileged to stay on,” Blair said. “Be respectful like it’s your own property,” he said.

Morss-Fish and Blair returned to Peterborough at the start of March as planned, but without a place to go: a rental they’d previously lined up had fallen through. “We’re staying with my parents, but we’re essentially homeless,” Morss-Fish said. She noted the irony of having a great place to live in parked right outside, if only local codes would allow them to do it. “We’re looking high and low,” for a place to live, she said.

Over in Sharon, Lara Matthias and Tim Groesbeck are still building up a vehicle of their dreams. The two are no strangers to spending time in converted vehicles: they’ve spent many a weekend outing in Groesbeck’s converted Sprinter van. However, Groesbeck is winding down his career as a builder in the next year or so, and the two soon plan to hit the road indefinitely when they can. They soon determined they’d need to start from scratch to build a “home on wheels” that would suit their needs.

A 20-year-old box truck in Groesbeck’s construction arsenal proved a convenient candidate, its transformation mirroring Matthias and Groesbeck’s hopes for their own new chapter. They recently got the engine overhauled, Matthias said, installing a shiny blue turbo. “Now it sounds like a beast,” she said, and no longer tops out at 60 miles per hour. It’s no small vehicle, but at 13’6” high with a 20-foot-long box it falls within the allowable trailer size for national park campgrounds, Groesbeck said. The space allows the two to prioritize what they actually need, namely, convenient storage for a number of mountain bikes, room for two medium-size dogs, and a hitch for a motorcycle, which they’ll ride while the truck is parked at an appropriate campsite, Matthias said.

The interior is still under construction: four inches of foam insulation and wood paneling are already in place, and a hot water heater, refrigerator, and an incredibly small wood stove come next. The boom in tiny house interest has made it easy to find certain niche appliances, Matthias said. Groesbeck cut out and installed a number of RV windows along the length of the box. He was initially going to use boat windows because they’re higher quality – “but boats don’t typically have screens,” he said.

Shared experiences, exploration, a sense of adventure and the best cycling spots on the continent are all big selling points for Matthias. “We have some spots we really want to hit,” she said, and they’re planning routes through Canada and the southern United States to link a number of destinations together. Although they have no set plans for coming home once they set out, Groesbeck is holding onto his property in Sharon. “We will have a place that we can come back to, if need be,” Matthias said.

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