Joining van life in a school bus, Colorado couple ready for on-the-road adventure | National

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — They thought this might be the year to plan a wedding.

Instead, Josh Wight and Vicki Dietzen are saving a different kind of date.

The big day is coming in a few weeks, when the Colorado Springs couple, along with their dog and two cats, will drive away in a school bus. They’re not sure where all they will go. Or when they’ll come back.

But they know their reasons for choosing this path. Whatever’s ahead might be a mystery, but they’re betting it’s the kind of lifestyle worth taking chances on.

They spent the past year converting their bus into a house on wheels, outfitted to resemble a cozy wood cabin with handmade touches that have inspired their bus to be called a “roving art piece.”

“You can’t do a log cabin bus, but this is as close as we can get,” Wight, 34, said. “And it’s pretty darn close.”

The bus is full of reclaimed wood with natural-looking live edges, along with plenty of plants. The kitchen counter, for example, is covered in a glossy resin and stripes of turquoise. Other pieces, like a table built to be out of the way when needed and then latched into place, follow a similar aesthetic.

In this quiet neighborhood in Colorado Springs, the school bus, which is still unfinished on the outside, stands out among rows of two-story houses. Friends who live in one of the houses have let the couple park outside.

“It does surprise people,” Dietzen, 29, said. “This is not a normal choice for a lot of people.”

It’s not that much of a surprise when you consider how the couple met. It was seven years ago at a music festival in Oakdale, California, when he was catering for the parking crew and she was volunteering in exchange for a free ticket. There was an instant connection, sparked by realizing something familiar in each other zest for life’s adventures.

Wight made sure to hand over his business card, showing he was a chef at a sushi restaurant, before they parted ways and offer, “If you’re ever in San Francisco…”

At the time, Dietzen was camping her way across the country with two friends and following whatever adventure came next. Soon that meant a stop in San Francisco. They visited Wight at the restaurant. Dietzen guesses they had $20 among the three of them. They planned to order water, maybe split a meal and just say “hey” to their new friend. But Wight treated them to dinner.

Their mutual crush flourished, even as Dietzen moved back to her hometown in southern Illinois. The two met up a few more times before Wight decided to move there, too.

He was making fine money as a chef in San Francisco. As rent prices rose, though, Wight found himself living in his car. It was easy to leave California in search of new love.

He and Dietzen have been together since, which included a move to Colorado Springs in 2017.

It also includes many conversations about what their future holds.

The conversations often led to the same question: What memories do you want to make and be able to look back on?

They both thought of their favorite memories so far: the times they have traveled and camped and spent most of their time outside.

Their years working in the service industry weren’t adding up to that kind of life. They were both used to long days and struggling to get ahead financially.

In their limited free time, they’d escape to their happy place: anywhere outside.

“We both have that wanderlust or whatever that is,” Wight said. “We both want experiences more than things.”

That’s how they landed on this plan. They’re going to take their on-wheels house on “Josh and Vicki’s Bus Adventure,” as they call it online, and explore parts of the country. One underlying goal is to discover where they might want to settle down and buy property one day.

An overall goal is a new way of life: Simply experiencing all it has to offer.

They plan to work odd jobs along the way and will get help from selling their art, jewelry and woodworking under their Etsy business called Rooted by Nature.

Wight and Dietzen will be joining “van life,” the glamorized and growing movement of nomads or weekend warriors who live in a vehicle part or full-time. Van life, as a defined phrase and philosophy, has been around since at least 2011.

Van life was officially created, it’s believed, as a hashtag. Its growing spotlight has been fueled by social media. A search on Instagram brings up 12 million posts related to the romanticized way of rootless living. Pictures, full of mountain views, sunrises and smiles, make it look like a dreamlike road trip that never has to end.

More people have chosen a version of van life since early 2020, according to Katie Branham, who works at Wayfarer Vans, a Colorado Springs-based van conversion company.

“Business has just exploded during the pandemic,” Branham said. “Remote work becoming such a thing made people rethink their living options.”

The company has grown from seven employees to more than 20 within the past two years. They opened a second location in Reno, Nevada. Wayfarer, Branham said, makes van life attainable for people who might not have the skills to do their own conversion and who want to start their journey quickly. Van conversions can get completed in less than a month and start at around $10,000.

“Van life is not just for the beautiful 20-year-old influencer you see online,” Branham said. “It can be very practical.”

Some customers are schoolteachers or recent retirees. Some embrace full-time van life and others have the van for short getaways.

“With a van, you don’t have to plan a lot if you want to go somewhere,” she said. “You can just go.”

Van lifers tend to have something in common: a love for the outdoors.

“It comes down to, what do you want to do to unwind?” Branham said. “Do you want to watch another screen or go outside?”

This is not reserved for vans only. Van life has become an umbrella term for those in all sorts of houses on wheels, such as RVs, ambulances and trucks.

School buses — or skoolies, as they’ve come to be called — have become another appealing vehicle option.

Charles Kern has noticed more interest in skoolies, which has been good for his Denver-based school bus conversion business, called Chrome Yellow Corp.

He was ahead of the game. He first lived in a school bus in 2008, when he was a broke college student seeking affordable housing.

“When I was 19 and living in a bus, you know, it wasn’t that cool,” he said. “The public opinion of this whole thing has dramatically shifted in the last five years. It does seem to be getting more mainstream.”

Kern has had a hand in that shift. In 2014, after a breakup threw him back in the housing search, he found himself once again wanting to live in a school bus. He “jokingly” applied to be featured on HGTV’s “Tiny House, Big Living.” In 2015, the show dedicated an episode to Kern’s skoolie and the renovation process.

That’s when he founded Chrome Yellow to help others seeking out skoolies. The idea is to mostly travel and stay at RV parks or on Bureau of Land Management property. Some live in more permanent spots.

Like Kern, some customers see it as a way to save money. Some see it as a way to save themselves from living ordinarily.

“There’s the promise of adventure and freedom,” he said. “There is a public perception of it being cool and kind of like the thing to do I guess. It’s a way to express their identity and sense of self.”

For Wight and Dietzen, there were many more reasons to try it than not. They bought their 30-foot-long bus, which had 160,000 miles on it, in December 2020. They got it from a school district auction in Tennessee for $4,500.

“We bought it sight unseen, which was terrifying,” said Deitzen.

They were willing to take the risk.

At the start of 2021, the couple began the work of turning the bus into a place to call home. They drew up intricate plans, with details down to each inch of the 195-square-foot space. The next year of their life was all about the build.

Part of the process was cutting the bus in half horizontally, jacking it up so the roof is 10 inches higher.

“We did everything ourselves,” Wight said. “There were several hiccups, but we kept pushing through.”

That got him here. They moved into the bus about a month ago and will begin traveling soon.

There is still work to do. But the work has paid off. They have plenty of storage. A kitchen that’s a dream for a chef like Wight and a cabinet space for his collection of hats. They have a miniature wood- burning stove and coffee makers and mugs for coffee. They have a fridge full of food and some beer. They have a record player and the records they love and a projector to watch movies. They have made close friends via the skoolie community online, where people often trade advice and tips.

That will help when things, inevitably, go wrong.

That’s why Kern might have some tough love for those embarking on this journey.

“Be ready to break down and to fail,” he said. “And have some money saved up for a rainy day.”

And, Kern said, be in love with your reasons for doing this.

“If it’s your dream, you owe it to yourself to get out there,” he said. “You could spend the rest of you life wondering what it would’ve been like.”

Wight and Dietzen won’t have to wonder.

One reason they decided to buy a skoolie over a van is for the extra space. Not just for them, but for their pets. They built in several spots with the dog and cats in mind.

“Half of the bus is for them, which is how it should be,” Dietzen said. “It’s their home too.”

Everyone is adjusting well. In the morning, the animals soak in the sun from the windows while their parents make coffee and plan the day. On a recent night, a skylight above their bed revealed a stunning view of the moon and stars.

“It was magical, honestly,” Dietzen said.

It was a sign of good things to come.

As they prepare to hit the road, more magic will likely follow.

So far, it feels like they have what they need. It feels good to have something of their own. It feels, well, like home.

As their welcome mat says, “Home is where you park it.”

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To follow Josh and Vicki’s Bus Adventure, visit instagram.com/backroadbuslife.

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