“This is it,” said my boyfriend, turning the car onto a dirt road that bisected a farm. I strained for my first glimpse of the property that we were considering purchasing—an old school bus on a small plot of land at the edge of a farmer’s field on a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River in Canada. I saw nothing but golden safflower fields, some far-off trees, and then the sparkling expanse of water. “It’s that clump of trees at the end,” Jean-Francois said, taking one hand off the steering wheel to point. A half-mile later, he turned into said clump of trees, and suddenly there it was: the magic school bus with the killer view.
A couple of years ago, if someone had told me I’d be considering purchasing a 1971 school bus built in Lima, Ohio, that had somehow made its way to the French-speaking province of Quebec, where it had been converted into a 270-square-foot vacation home, I’d have said they were crazy. I’m a travel writer who is more often on the road than not—which makes owning anything, even a dog, problematic. Jean-Francois and I keep our possessions to a minimum and our home life minimal, which includes renting the modest house where we’re based in Boulder, Colorado. I prefer to avoid falling into the trap of becoming financially (and emotionally) tethered to things.
So how did I end up considering purchasing a bus-turned-tiny-home some 2,000 miles away? My otherwise pragmatic boyfriend, a software architect by trade, has a soft spot for this place. Jean-Francois is French-Canadian and the property has been in his family for nearly 30 years. His aunt had been the one to put the bus there as a shelter, turning the land into a retreat from nearby Quebec City, where she lived. Jean-Francois had visited the bus several times as a teenager and young adult, and had been enchanted by the serenity—nothing but the sound of the pristine creek flowing past the bus and cascading over the rocky bluff before returning home to the cobalt-blue waters of the St. Lawrence River. And the price was right. Jean-Francois’ aunt was selling her sweet little getaway for $8,000 CAD, or just over $6,000 USD.
On my first visit, it was obvious that we were in a special place, even before we got to the bus. The property is located on Île d’Orléans, “Island of Orleans,” 3 miles from Quebec City as the crow flies. The 21-mile-long-by-5-mile destination houses mostly vegetable farms, orchards, dairies, and vineyards. En route to the bus, we drove past a half-dozen roadside stands, where suntanned farmers showcased buckets of berries and bundles of vegetables, displayed alongside artisan wines, cheeses, and jams.
The Quebecois have kept development on idyllic Île d’Orléans to a minimum to preserve its historic character (the island was first discovered in 1535 and has been continuously inhabited since 1661). Six small municipalities dot its circumference, each containing a harmonious blend of homes, restaurants, and shops. The sole paved road around the island is shared by farmers, residents, cyclists, and agritourists. It was not lost on me that Jean-Francois’s aunt had chosen my own personal version of paradise for her getaway.
But the bus itself was disappointing. Jean-Francois had warned me that it had fallen into disrepair several years ago, when his aunt had moved 3,600 miles away. Standing before it for the first time, I saw that the white exterior paint was filthy, spotted with rust and, in places, worn down to the original color, now a dingy yellow stain. I could smell the odor of the bus’s musty innards before Jean-Francois even yanked open the door. Stepping inside, I nearly choked on the stale air.
The original steering wheel and driver’s seat still occupied the entry, although the bus hadn’t been driven in decades. Beyond stood a pea-green stove and an old-fashioned refrigerator with a stench all its own. Across from the appliances was a counter with custom-built kitchen cabinets that must have been nice at one point but smelled so strongly of mothballs that I held my breath.
The dinette was covered in layers of dust, the seats crisscrossed by cobwebs. I gingerly opened the storage closet to find formerly indispensable items—a handheld vacuum cleaner, a mixing bowl, canning jars, extra pillows and blankets—reduced to grimy junk. In the back of the bus, the cramped bedroom was even more musty than the kitchen. Nearly every window had been covered over with white paint, blocking the gorgeous river bluff view to one side, and the miles of idyllic farmlands to the other.
“What do you think?” Jean-Francois asked.
“It’s a dump,” I replied. But I was smiling. Because I could picture it totally gutted and renovated into a minimalist loft-style space. I could see the gleaming new hardwood floor, the sleek modern furnishings and appliances, and the perfectly symmetrical windows running down each side showcasing the nonstop views. The bus was a diamond in the rough, and I knew it. But it was also in conflict with my “Don’t tie yourself down with too much stuff” lifestyle.
Afterward, Jean-Francois and I went to dinner with his parents, who live in Quebec City, to discuss. His father, a retired architect, advised us on structural repairs. Then he and Jean-Francois brainstormed design ideas, from adding a bathroom with a composting toilet and heated shower, to tearing out the steering wheel and seat to create an actual entryway. The bus needed some serious work—a couple thousand dollars’ worth, at least.
Jean-Francois’s parents volunteered to be our project managers, driving across the bridge from Quebec City to the island to oversee any contract work we needed done. Once the bus had been properly remodeled, they said, they would help with the upkeep, in exchange for using the property when we weren’t there. Jean-Francois was sold. I needed more time to decide.
Back home in Colorado, I pondered the financial repercussions. I knew that I had enough money in my savings bucket to afford to split the $6,000 cost. But I didn’t want to spend much more than that, or have the bus start to feel like a ball and chain.
I was out in the foothills on a trail run when it occurred to me that I wasn’t buying a thing so much as an experience. The bus provided a chance to reside on a unique French-speaking island full of farmers and foodies, and an opportunity to connect more strongly with Jean-Francois’s homeland and his parents. It was also a decent investment, whether we ended up selling it to the next generation, or retiring in it (because who doesn’t want to grow old in a magic bus in a land of free healthcare?).
In the end, it was a comment by Jean-Francois that got me off the fence. “I think my aunt already has plans for the bus proceeds,” he told me over dinner one night. He explained that his free-spirited aunt lived in a remote wooded area in Canada’s far north. She loved it, except for the fact that she sometimes got snowed in for days on end in the winter. An ATV with a snowplow would be invaluable.
I like the idea of letting go of something that’s no longer useful, no matter how beloved, to make room for something that will better serve you. The idea of Jean-Francois’ aunt trading the bus for an ATV inspired me. Did we have anything that was sitting idle? We did. An old camper van, full of many good memories, that we’d used only once in the past three years.
We placed an ad on Craigslist and quickly found a buyer, a young couple who’d just had their first baby. They agreed to pay us $9,000 USD, enough to cover the cost of the bus and some of the remodel. Suddenly, the financial side made good sense. Plus, I’d seen the elation in their eyes when we showed them the van, and heard it in Jean-Francois’ aunt’s voice later that day when we called her to tell her we were going to buy the magic bus. I realized that this purchase didn’t feel at all like something that would tie me down. Quite the opposite. It felt like flow.
Adventure journalist Jayme Moye writes about human-powered travel and exploration (by foot, ski, bike, and paddle). She is based in Boulder, Colorado.
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