On the bus

To some young people, life on the road means a chance at adventure—and escape

Lorelei Neft is currently renovating her 22-foot-long mini bus. When it’s finished, if all goes according to plan, it will look like a cottage on wheels.

Lorelei Neft is currently renovating her 22-foot-long mini bus. When it’s finished, if all goes according to plan, it will look like a cottage on wheels.

Maybe it’s a soul-sucking job, a dead-end relationship or just the prospect of another day in the same old routine, but the urge to hit the road and leave it all in the rearview mirror might be familiar to anyone who’s ever felt stuck in life. While a life of freewheeling adventure on 3000 miles of American highway makes for a nice office day dream, an increasing number of young people have found the prospect of living in a vehicle more desirable—and in some cases, more practical—than traditional housing.

According to the yearly report from the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, RV sales of all makes and models have risen by an average of 10 percent every year since 2012, with Americans spending over 20 billion dollars on RVs in 2017. The RVIA also indicates that millennials spend more on RVs than other Americans, followed closely by retiring boomers. However, social media content like #vanlife offers a rose-colored glimpse at a subculture of young Americans choosing remote destinations over roommates and paying gas bills instead of rent—no cushy RV required.

To a few young Truckee Meadows residents, their vision of a life on wheels comes in the form of a modified school bus. Lorelei Neft is a 25-year-old who, at the end of last summer, decided she needed a change.

“I was having, like, a quarter-life crisis,” Neft said. “I had just walked out of a job working at Renown and, like, using my degree, and it sucked. I was within, like, a month of being unemployed—not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I was like, ’I just need to travel. I need to get out of here.’ So, obviously, the rational choice is to buy a school bus and to convert it into a tiny home.”

After abruptly quitting her job at Renown Health Center, Neft spent a month abroad in India. When she returned to Reno, she decided to embark on a project that would give her the minimalism and freedom she felt was missing in her life. She began converting the 22-foot-long mini school bus she had purchased a few months earlier into her new home.

“When I really sat down and focused on when I was really happiest in my life. … It’s always been, like, when I studied abroad, or when I backpacked in Japan,” Neft said. “And, so, I basically really hastily came up with the solution that I need. Like, why not convert a vehicle into my home so I can take my home with me wherever I want to go?”

Neft budgeted $10,000 for the entire project. She specifically wanted a mini bus for its diminutive size, and found one in New Jersey, where they are more common than on the West Coast, for $3000. Along with another $3000 to ship it to Reno, plus a few fees and taxes, Neft had a little under $4000 left for the basic construction of water lines, insulation and a battery-operated electrical system, as well as amenities like a full-size bed, gas range and cabinet sink, and solar shower with water-less toilet.

“I knew I wanted to design the inside, so I could have done a van build, but I wanted to be able to stand up,” Neft said. “So that was an important factor aside from the school bus aesthetic.”

The aesthetics of her home are important to Neft, who’s designing the entire space to look like a brick house on wheels—complete with wooden front door and Astro-turf “backyard” on the roof. She and a contractor friend installed hard wood floors and a stately thrift-shop armoire, and she even considered adding a wood burning stove before deciding it was overkill. She believes her mobile-cottage design also has practical benefits, like potentially renting the bus to Burners every summer at an increased rate for the creative additions.

“The couple that I babysit for, they bought, like, a $20,000 motor home, and it was a nice motor home, and they rented it out for Burning Man for two years at, like, $12,000 each year,” Neft said. “It paid for their RV for them. When I got [the bus] I asked if they would help me draft out a contract.”

Aside from freedom of movement, cost was Neft’s other biggest motivation in living in her bus. After paying upwards of $800 a month for a studio apartment for the past few years, she decided that renovating the bus would be cheaper in the long run than buying a ready-made RV (which would be more expensive, less spacious and less customizable) or continuing to pay a traditional rent.

Even with her initial $600 registration fee, insurance fee, gas, food and miscellaneous costs, Neft estimates her monthly expenses in the bus will be under half of what she used to pay in rent alone.

“My aunts and my cousins … they just don’t get it,” Neft said. “’Why didn’t you just buy an already made motorhome?’ Like, ’Why don’t you just get some roommates?’ and it’s like, I cherish my alone time. I don’t want to live with anybody else. I want the ability to choose where I live.”

Neft currently works at Sol Cannabis Dispensary and rents a room from the same friend helping her finish the bus. Her only priority now is to save enough money to finish the bus and pay off some student loans before hitting the road sometime next year. After that, she said, she might start by visiting a few of her favorite national parks or taking the bus across Canada and back. Having options, she said, and not necessarily a plan, is the entire point of her life on wheels.

“I think I have the natural characteristic of wanting to do what I want, when I want to do it,” Neft said. “And I think that people get confused on whether or not it’s just like, you’re afraid or you’re escaping all for negative reasons as opposed to thinking about it like, ’This is just who this person is, and they like running away.’”

Nick DeRaedt and Marisa Stephens designed their $25,000 adventure bus with both freedom and comfort in mind for themselves and their pets.Photos/Matt Bieker

Change of plans

To Nick DeRaedt and his full-size, solar-powered adventure bus, changing life plans come with the territory. He originally conceived of his bus four years ago for similar reasons as Neft—a thirst for new and challenging scenery and an unwillingness to resign himself to a stale routine.

“I did the whole, like, I went to college, I got my 9-to-5 job right out of college and I started working in an office and I was like, ’Dude, I’m miserable,’” DeRaedt said. “If I want to go work tomorrow for, let’s say McDonald’s or whatever … and then the next day quit just because I’d have enough money saved up, and just travel and do whatever I want. … The bus would allow me to do that.”

He originally bought the 44-foot-long bus with a friend as a shared investment. Soon after, however, the friend had to back out and DeRaedt assumed most of the responsibility for the project, which he financed through his job as a wilderness firefighter. His timeline for repairing and building out the bus was pushed back as firefighting kept him busy, but the steady source of income allowed him to make some design choices with the help of his longtime girlfriend Marisa Stephens.

“My mom … you know, she looks at me as a professional since I’m a teacher. So, she’s like, ’You’re a professional. You shouldn’t be living on a bus,’” Stephens said.

But the bus, which started as a rough and ready mobile-basecamp, instead took on a degree of comfort reminiscent of most modern homes. DeRaedt’s original bunkbed concept evolved to include a collapsible queen-sized bed, walk-in shower, full sink with linoleum countertops and dish racks, plus a wood-burning stove. They even built a deck on the roof.

“I’d run all the pipes and all the plumbing, kind of figuring out how that all works,” DeRaedt said. “The only thing on this whole bus that I had outside help of, like, an expert on was the installation of the solar kit.”

DeRaedt estimates he’s put about $25,000 into the bus, and even though it remains fully equipped with a log cabin interior and custom paint job, he and Stephens have never used it for a primary living space—except when they want to.

“My other biggest logistical issue was just parking,” DeRaedt said. “I mean, it’s great if you have an RV spot, but the whole point was to live out of it, and then I just didn’t know where to park. So, like, now I bought a house because I needed it, and I bought this house again with it in mind like, ’Where I can park this bus?’”

The couple found that if they weren’t driving the bus, they’d still have to pay for land on which to park it. With DeRaedt’s recent acceptance of a job as a firefighter on federal land and Stephen’s teaching career to consider, the couple made the decision to buy a house in Panther Valley to serve as a home base until their seasonal employment allows them the time to take the bus on its first extended trip.

“I always make this joke that I’d rather have a small house with a big garage, because my garage, I want to fill up all my toys to go out and live life,” DeRaedt said.

Now, instead of an ascetic life on the road like he originally pictured, DeRaedt and Stephens have the option to go wherever they want in their downtime, and even included beds and a litterbox in the bus for their cat and dog.

Even when it isn’t moving, though, the couple say it’s a favorite hangout spot when they have friends over—and they’ve been introduced to like-minded community of travelers through social media. DeRaedt and Stephens shared the building process on a Facebook page called “Born to Explore” dedicated to the bus, and when DeRaedt casually asked one day how much his followers thought the bus might be worth, the response was staggering.

“I just put out an idea, like, ’Hey, what do you guys think this is worth?” He said. “I had, like, 40 people comment on it and all these things. It was great.”

DeRaedt and Stephens have no plans to sell the bus and hope to get on the road sometime after the upcoming fire season, but also think they see why the simplicity of life on the road is so appealing to their online audience—a decidedly millennial mix of wanderlust and existential dread.

“It starts racking up when you have house payments, car payments--like, you can’t leave, you’re stuck in this circular motion where you have to go to work because you have to be able to pay these bills,” DeRaedt said. “And I feel like a lot of people started realizing there’s almost no part of that anymore where you’re truly enjoying yourself.”

“I think with where our world is going, it’s just so different,” Stephens said. “I mean our president and, you know, the environment—everything. There’s so many things where you’re just like, ’Who knows what’s going to happen?’ You just have to live every day like it’s your last, I guess.” •