For those not familiar with the Expedition: Yes, we do travel on retrofitted school buses! Ours are NOT yellow, as they are not “official” school buses. In fact, they are more like the cool tiny houses that we are all hearing and seeing so much about these days! In the bus, as in a tiny house, you have everything you need, and everything has a place. The space is shared among the community of students and faculty. We thought you might like to have a look at how this all works for the up to 20 students and two to four faculty.
There are some commonalities that anyone who has experienced a bus semester share – even if thirty years has separated their time with the program. There is the amazing education where we are immersed in the natural world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are the people and places that have welcomed bus communities for over 40 years! And then there is the experience of community itself – where we come to know one another so well, we recognize whose toothbrush has been accidentally left on the bus dashboard! But one of the most powerful and enduring experiences is how the physical bus becomes home. We come to know every nook and cranny of the space we inhabit. These areas may be known by different names, and there may have been some unique interior bus designs, but there are certain elements that have to be there. For example:
Each EEI bus has a library of at least 400 books in various categories related to the courses being offered during the semester and the region being studied.
The kitchen area
On the “driver’s side” in the rear of the bus are dry food storage bins where canned goods and other non-refrigerated items are kept like tortillas, bagels, and other breads, nut butters, cooking and salad oils and vinegars, oatmeal, rice, and other whole grains, rice cakes, crackers, cereals, pasta, boxed soy and nut milks, corn chips, etc. How these bins are arranged is determined by the community as a whole. They can be separated into breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, or arranged according to cook crews, or a variety of other plans devised by imaginative groups! There is generally a separate space for spices, teas, coffee, and other commonly used items across meals.
The lids of these bins provide a place for cutting boards to be placed when preparing meals, or for getting your breakfast organized from a breakfast bin – as long as there aren’t too many trying to accomplish this at the same time!
On the “door side” of the rear space are three marine coolers with ice containers that just fit a standard block of ice. All refrigerated items go in these coolers – generally with a plan to keep them organized, that may have to do with cook crews, or categories of food, such as dairy, eggs, fruits and veggies, etc., or breakfast, lunch, dinner, and (of course) the ubiquitous “snacks”. Ice is renewed every three days or more often as needed. Generally, grocery shopping also occurs approximately every five days as buses are not equipped to store food for longer.
Near the coolers is a rack for storing cutting boards and iron skillets, pot lids, and such. Compost and recycling have their own space as does the assortment of pots and pans, strainers, bowls, and other cooking and serving utensils. All are secured with bungees or nets for safety while the bus is moving.
The rear of the bus also has storage areas for backcountry camping gear – stoves, water filters, etc.
The roof rack
A platform is attached to the roof of the bus, accessed by a ladder on the rear beside the door. The roof of the bus is where individual gear is stored (in students’ large backpacks or duffle bags) that is not in everyday use. Some students enjoy quiet time on the roof when in campgrounds – reading, having conversations, or just watching the world go by.
The sleeping bag and Thermarest bin
Students and faculty sleep outside in program-provided tents or under the stars, weather permitting. The tents are stored in specially constructed bins either under the bus frame or inside the bus. Individual sleeping bags and sleeping pads are stored inside in a bin and some bus groups store them in a place where students can nap in amidst the soft bits.
The music bin
Bus groups have been making their own music ever since they have been “on the road”. All buses have several guitars, sometimes a banjo or a mandolin, various percussion instruments, and harmonicas. The library contains songbooks and instructional material for those who want to learn to play. Faculty often play an instrument and can be engaged to help learners. And when this isn’t the case, there may be a musical student in the group who is willing to share their knowledge. And we all bring the instrument of our voices!
Educational and Office supplies
There is a three drawer file cabinet with a locked drawer for confidential materials and also houses faculty office needs as well as office supplies like staplers, tape, stationary, paper, and envelopes, etc. for students.
Personal spaces (overhead and under seats)
Living communally, having a space to call one’s own is important. Under the bus seats students each have a milk crate size bin (or two if bus populations are smaller). These spaces usually hold personal items that you want easy access to like a travel mug, cutlery, food bowl, napkin, journal, art supplies, maybe the book you are currently reading, course outlines, snacks.
The overhead areas run the length of the bus above the bus seats. They are divided up into separate personal spaces where bus denizens store clothing, toiletries, and other odds and ends of individual needs. The first few weeks on the bus requires getting accustomed to ducking when moving quickly around in the front of the bus so as not to hit your head on the “overheads”. They are well padded, but it is still a shock when you forget! Just in general, getting accustomed to bus life means learning how to negotiate the interplay between personal and public space which is a constant.
The seats and the lighting
The insides of EEI buses retain standard bus seats – usually 12 – with the remainder removed to create storage and study space. Bus seats can comfortably hold two seated adults and, when there’s space, individuals can curl up for a nap on one by themselves. Long drives provide an opportunity to sit and read, to journal, to draw, to sing, to chat, to discuss, to have a meeting with your academic advisor, or just to watch the land and people we are encountering.
When on the move, the bus has a nearly endless supply of electricity we can tap into, accessed through an inverter. When stationary for longer periods we need to be more careful of the use of bus lights so that the bus has enough power to start when we want it to!
Under-bus storage areas
There are (at least) two welded storage areas attached to the bus chassis where bus repair tools, emergency equipment, water jugs, the propane stoves, camping gear, and such items are kept. The metal hatch opening on “door side” is made so that it can be used as a place to prepare and serve meals. Some buses also have an awning that comes out from the roof rack to make this area more protected in rain (or less commonly, snow!).