We’d pulled over so my dad could stretch his legs after hours of driving, but before he had fully stepped onto the gravel lot of the gas station, he was staring down the barrel of a shotgun. I watched from the front window, scared, shocked, willing my father to come back inside. The presumed owner of the place, a wiry man, wrinkled and gaunt, had already made himself clear with his gun, but then he added in a thick Louisiana accent, “You’d better git back on that bus.” My father was only too happy to oblige.
It’s not like we didn’t stand out.
The bus was a ‘46 Crown Coach school bus, thirty-five feet long, painted dark green with wooden planks along the side, its spare tire hanging on its front like a nose. The bedroom my dad had built on top for the four older kids was in its traveling position; the canvas top removed and the wooden sidewalls folded down, and the twin water barrels, their aqua-marine color faded after years of traveling through the southwest, sat atop the middle of the bus, giving it a humpback appearance in profile. It was not your typical RV, but it was my home for more than ten years.
I was four when the bus showed up in the empty lot across the street from our house. It was 1979 and there were still plenty of orange groves in Orange County, CA, where my family rented a little pink stuccoed house, a palm tree in the front yard and an avocado tree in the back. My parents had already pulled my older brother out of public school, opting instead for the local “free” school, where formal education came second to the freedom to express yourself. Homeschooling would be an easy transition. But the bus was something different, and after several months of gutting bench seats and installing rudimentary plumbing, we were ready to get on the road.
We moved around a lot at first, finding places to park for a few days or weeks, places like “the flats,” an abandoned quarry where my older brothers and sister and I spent our time playing with found objects, dilapidated toddler strollers and Evel Knievel inspired helmets, fitting in our education a little at a time, while Mark and Mike, two brothers we met there, taught us the most elaborate string of curse words known to man. We found a small group of like-minded travelers in Tucson, other bus people, mostly couples in their early twenties. As it turned out, when you lived in a bus, you could find other bus people without too much difficulty.
I turned five there, my first birthday in our new home. We had a small party in a wooded part of town where a few buses had gathered into a well-behaved hippie camp, oil lamps shining in the darkness of the desert night, a variety of TVP laden vegetarian meals cooking on propane stoves, the warm sound of laughter echoing through the trees. One of the couples gave me a wooden piggy bank with a dollar in it, which my brothers promptly helped me liberate with a flat head screwdriver. A dollar was everything in 1979. The piggy did not survive.
Later, when my dad became accustomed to driving for long stretches at a time, we drove to Baltimore, where my parents first met and where my grandparents still lived, stopping at rest areas along the way, seeing the country in a way few of my peers could. There would be the occasional flat tire, which in a vehicle that size wasn’t a quick fix, and sometimes more unusual maladies, like the time a mouse died in the fuel line. There were roadside attractions that any family might have stopped at, with exotic animals and Mexican pottery, giant dinosaurs made of fiberglass, Cadillac graveyards. But where other families would stop for the night in a roadside motel, or at their Aunt Betsy’s house in Santa Fe, ours would tuck in at a friendly seeming rest area or the occasional campground, and there was no specific ultimate destination, no equivalent to Wally’s World at the end of our journey. We would hop from state to state, parking for lengths in the backyards of friends, family, nice people we’d only just met. We made a lot of friends.
It was the in-between times that were my favorite, the long stretches between California and Kansas, between Texas and Pennsylvania, where we were forever seeing something new, all through the windows of our home. I remember lying in bed early on (which for me was the sofa in the living room, the addition upstairs wouldn’t come until years later), the only light coming from a small lamp in the kitchen with a soft blue glass shade, as my dad listened to Dire Straits on 8-track while my mother washed the dishes. There was something mystical in those moments that I can recall almost viscerally even now, decades later, the sounds of Mark Knopfler’s guitar intermingling with a passing Santa Fe train, at least sixty cars judged by how long it took to pass, the smell of tofu and canned vegetables still hanging in the air, only mildly displaced by the incense my dad would burn at night.
We don’t still live in a bus, nor could I tell you where to find bus people now, though there’s probably a Facebook group. People often thought we were making a statement, but it was never that for us. For me, it was my childhood. It was the way I saw the country, the way I met my friends, the way I learned people aren’t always welcoming to people who live differently than they do. And my memories were formed geographically as well as chronologically. We were in Avra Valley, Arizona, crowded around our 12” tv in the kitchen when the space shuttle exploded, and in Leucadia, California, just overlooking the beach, when my sister taught me to roller skate. It was in our tiny living room where I met my baby sister for the first time, in the mountains above Ojai, and again a few years later when they brought my baby brother home, in the woods of Fawn Grove, PA. My childhood is in all those moments, in all those places, even that gas station in Louisiana, with the shotgun-toting redneck in a town I don’t remember.