LA GRANDE — Brittany and Ethan Benge had a proposal.
The Florida couple were going to have a wedding then travel the United States in their converted Thomas FS-65 school bus. It was a plan years in the making, and the pandemic provided the impetus for the service industry couple and their cat, Frankie, to begin their epic honeymoon.
They had no sooner stopped in La Grande on Friday, July 30, and parked near the railroad tracks along Jefferson Street when they began planning their next stop.
“We haven’t stayed anywhere for longer than two weeks,” Brittany Benge said.
The couple began working on their skoolie — a term used by the nomad community to describe school buses renovated into livable homes — long before the pandemic started.
“We’ve been building the bus for about two years,” Brittany said. “We were already planning on leaving, but we didn’t plan on starting the trip until after we got married.”
Those plans were accelerated and the couple left Wenatchee, Florida, in March 2020.
“We’ve been going ever since,” Brittany said.
The 40-foot bus named “Adobe” is their entire home, according to Brittany. And because space is tight, the couple had to whittle down their belongings at least six times over the course of their journey.
“Storage is the biggest thing.” We have to make every space function. If it doesn’t serve a function, it doesn’t make it on the bus,” Brittany said.
A few trinkets remain. On an end table near the bed was a copy of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. Household items stayed in pairs — his and hers. Two loofahs — pink and black — hung from a hook in the shower. Two coffee cups. Two chairs for the pop-up desk that serves as the dining table, writing desk and workbench for the couple’s online business, Social Benge.
Ethan Benge, a former U.S. Army soldier, had taught himself graphic design while working in restaurants in Florida, building up a portfolio and skillset to help businesses with marketing, design and search engine optimization. Like millions of Americans, he became a remote worker nearly overnight when COVID-19 forced shutdowns across the country.
“Once he got used to it, he said, ‘I think I can actually make a career out of this,’” Brittany said. “And I’m so glad he actually did.’”
It’s by no means an easy life, Ethan said of their nomadic adventure. The couple not only has to contend with cramped spaces and limited resources, such as finding power and fresh water, but they also have to find a way to continue to make money.
“A lot of people will think that we’re on vacation 24/7 or that we don’t have jobs,” Ethan said. “We’re working 40 to 60 hours a week, easy. We would not be able to travel like we do unless we had these jobs.”
Bus life isn’t without its merits, however. At times, the view from their office is spectacular.
Just weeks before, the couple had fired away emails for Ethan’s social media management company while staring out across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Northwestern Utah.
With 24 windows, the view was panoramic.
Turning the bus into a traveling home
Before they could begin their long-term cross-country trip, the couple had to first build out their home. They bought a decommissioned school bus for around $9,000. Over the course of two years, they invested a total of $25,000 into the project.
“We saw a converted bus and said, ‘I bet we could do that,’” Brittany said. “‘We had barely ever picked up a hammer when we bought the bus. We were literally YouTube graduates. We watched everything on YouTube on how to gut the bus.’”
The inside includes a fully operational — albeit confined — shower and bathroom. Most windows feature a plant or a box-fan. The air-conditioner had broken a month prior, according to Ethan Benge.
Every fixture was crafted by hand. The only outside assistance they had came early in the build when they found someone to remove the rows of seats for free. The rest, the couple stated, was their handiwork.
Wood paneling and painted shiplap walls for the shower — blue, matching the exterior of the bus. A couch adorned with pillows and blankets, one embroidered with the words “home is where you park it.” A flat-screen TV held down by black flat cords and hooked up to a Fallout 4 decorated Xbox — in his free time, Ethan is a gamer.
The bus is powered by solar panels, allowing the travelers to remain almost completely self-sufficient, save for the times when they need to replenish the 100-gallon water tank and dispose of waste.
The back room holds their bed, lit dimly at dusk by string lights — though, in the summer nights and on clear days, the couple sometimes prefers to spend their evenings on the roof staring at the stars.
‘The most epic honeymoon’
The couple had originally planned for a spring wedding — but that was before COVID-19. Plan after plan faltered, and they canceled the ceremony three times before they finally eloped in Colorado.
“We just want to get freaking married,” Brittany said.
As the pandemic raged across the world, the couple said their vows on the side of a mountain on Sept. 3, 2020. The only guests were an officiant, their cat, Frankie, and a family friend serving as their photographer.
“From there, we were like, ‘We’re married now, so let’s go have the most epic honeymoon,’” Brittany said.
Traveling and working in the same space means extended periods of time spent together for the newlyweds.
“I don’t remember the last time I was alone for more than an hour,” Brittany said.
They also had their cat to keep them company, until tragedy struck in Dallas and Frankie, Brittany’s 12-year-old companion, had to be put down due to health issues. Although not used to traveling, Frankie had quickly grown accustomed to life on the road.
“He would put his claws into the couch and then not move. He got used to it pretty fast, though,” Ethan said.
Initial skittishness quickly subsided and Frankie proved to be an ideal travel companion, and a popular model for the couples’ Instagram account, which they use to document and share their adventures.
“Every time we got to a new place, he would be right next to the door,” Brittany said.
“He loved to look out all the windows,” Ethan added.
Around the bus some remnants and memories of Frankie linger. Insulin injections used to treat his diabetes remain tucked away in a medicine bag. On the kitchen counter is a painted portrait of Frankie in a suit mimicking the style of a Renaissance painting.
“The house feels a little cold now without him,” said Brittany. “He was sharing this journey with us, and now he’s gone. I’m glad he got to do this part of the journey with us.”
Choosing the road less traveled
The bulk of the overnight stays for the couple, due to their self-sufficient nature, happen far away from RV parks. Nearly unlimited time and the ability to work from effectively anywhere has led to a series of right turns off the interstate on their way to see the next landmark. Their preferred sites are normally public lands, or using one of the many apps available to nomads for finding an overnight place to rest their rig and heads.
“We will stay in an RV park every once in a while. First we look for BLM, then we go to HarvestHost before looking for campgrounds and RV Parks. RV parks are usually a last resort,” Ethan said.
He also noted that many RV parks and campgrounds frown upon skoolies — often attributed to their bohemian-like aesthetic and correlation with less-scrupulous park visitors.
The couple gave advice for people starting their own bus adventure.
“Do it,” Ethan Benge said.
“Do your research,” Brittany Benge interrupted.
“Do it, and do your research,” he corrected.
“Everybody will say, ‘Do it now while you don’t have kids,’ but I think that’s a load of crap. We know so many people — in fact, it’s more common to see families who travel on a bus,” Brittany said. “If we have kids, I want them to see this — they’ll love it, they’ll love traveling in the bus.”
The long road stretches out before them — their next destination is Seattle and then Costa Rica. And, ultimately, returning to Florida. But after 18 months of traveling, they’re not sure they want to go back to the way things were.
“I don’t think we will ever go back to that structure again. I think we will always have a need of some mode of travel,” Brittany said. “Even if we got a brick and mortar home someday, we will still have the bus.”