How Two Travelers Converted Their Burning Man Bus To A Full-Time Home

#Vanlife is an Uproxx passion. We’ve been seduced by the commitment to independence and wanderlust that undergird the scene. And who isn’t down with the beautiful vans people are turning out and all of the photos from their trips to national parks and other glorious natural areas? As far as I’m concerned, nothing beats living vicariously through the wild spirits we feature in these interviews (besides actually joining the Mad Ones out on the road).

But, in an innovative riff on the central narrative of living on the road, there’s no van today. Instead we have a bus!

Jessica Perez and Nick Cahill (@bluebusadventure) are the owners and inhabitants of a converted 1988 Mighty Mite Thomas school bus. With just 100 square feet to play with, they have constructed one of the most beautiful builds we’ve ever featured and only our third skoolie conversion.

Perez and Cahill did most of the work themselves, learning as they went and drawing on the resources of their community. They can add that accomplishment to a long list of others — as both have excelled in their careers (Nick as a photographer and Jessica as a consultant) and logged a tremendous amount of travel time, including a lot of time at festivals. Yes, these two embody the photographer, bus lifer, Burning Man enthusiast trifecta for which we have searched so long and hard. It’s legit exciting.

Nick and Jessica connected with me via the phone on a break from their life on the road to talk about life before the bus, the conversion, and the surprises that sprang up during their transition to bus living. They have some solid advice for anyone considering joining the van/bus living community. Plus, they talked about how this move made their relationship better, which we have heard before. Forget couples therapy, get you a bus.

Alright, so tell me a little about your life before you guys decided to hit the road.

Nick: We both grew up in the Bay Area. I grew up in a little bit of a more outdoor lifestyle than Jessica did. My parents would take me camping in the summer, things like that. I ended up going to college in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Jessica and I met while I was in college. She was out of college. And then she moved up to Tahoe, and we ended up getting the bus. Initially it wasn’t for living in; it was for Burning Man. And then we kind of took the next steps from there to move into it.

I’m outdoor adventure person. I love to snowmobile, I love snowboarding. A few years ago, I got into skydiving. I would say I’m an adrenaline enthusiast. I don’t like the word “adrenaline junkie” that much, ’cause it kind of has a bad term to it.

When I went to Tahoe, I had my camera, and I picked a route to go in life. The route was to go through the camera, so I took business management classes and digital art courses. Those led me to take photos of nature a lot, and then really get behind the camera. I got a good job as a media director for the largest military content network on the web. From there, I was able to work remotely, which allowed me to stay in Lake Tahoe. And I managed to get the cover of National Geographic on the side of managing that job and my lifestyle at the same time. It made sense for me to continue pursuing photography, which is one major reason we’re in the bus: To continue to pursue my photography.

Nice. And Jessica, you were working as a consultant?

Jessica: I met Nick after I graduated college. We met at Insomniac Production’s Electric Daisy Carnival, which is a festival in Las Vegas. Nick helped inspire me to kind of go against society norms of … I don’t know, I was in a really odd place in my life. I was working as a consultant, working really long hours. Demanding clients. The work was great, and at that time, I was young, younger and single, and just kind of wanted to focus on my career. But as I got more involved in my career, I kept feeling kind of empty at the same time in other aspects of my life.

When I met Nick, it seemed like the next step in my life was to let go of my career and explore love and being with someone else. I moved up to Lake Tahoe. I tried getting touristy-type jobs because it’s a touristy area and you have seasonal work there with snow and the summertime. That didn’t go so well because I was overqualified for those jobs. And then I ended up finding myself back in the consulting industry for a firm that was based locally where we were. I didn’t necessarily put my career on hold anymore; it was a slower path than what I was originally doing back in the day.

And then you guys came together, and then at some point you decided that it would be fun to build a bus for the Burn?

Jessica: We had gone to Burning Man the year before, and we shared a trailer with two other couples. There were six of us sharing one rig, essentially. We realized that’s too much, too many people in a small space at Burning Man. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that event, but it’s quite challenging. When we were originally looking for a trailer (or something else for Nick and I to have like a small little personal vehicle), our friend emailed us a link from Craigslist of this school bus. And we at first joked, “There’s no way we’re going to get a bus. What are we going to do with this thing?” But then we went to the gym, had some endorphins going. I went on Pinterest while I was on the treadmill and I was like, “What can we do with a bus conversion?” And we saw these ideas.

Nick: It made sense because we didn’t necessarily want an RV or a trailer because I didn’t want a toilet inside. There were just certain things that we both together felt we didn’t need. Once we figured it out and we did the Googling and she saw the Pinterest, we showed each other our research, and we both really loved the idea of building your own space.

Jessica: Yeah.

Nick: I think, like she found the little pieces that she really loved about the bus, and I found my few little pieces that I really loved about the bus. And then together, we were able to puzzle piece those things together and create our final vision, which is pretty much what we have now.

Your bus is beautiful.

Nick: Thanks. Jessica designed it.

It’s aesthetically lovely. Were you guys down to do the conversion yourselves? Was that something you were prepared to do?

Nick: Yes. I originally picked up a camera right after high school ’cause I was building a race car in my parent’s garage. I wanted to take pictures and document so I could get advice and guidance online, and these photos could help me identify certain things. It made sense taking pictures saying, “I don’t know what this is. Help me fix it.”

I had previously built this race car, so I knew that I could turn a wrench. Something that I didn’t know was anything about a school bus, but I figured we could easily figure it out on the internet; there’s so much information out there.

Jessica: The first box that he made out of wood is in the bus right now; it’s what holds our oven. We have relied on reaching out to friends who are in the industry of construction. We had a friend who had some experience with laying flooring down, for instance. Everyone saw our project and wanted to be a part of it, wanted to be a part of it in some way. They were able to help contribute some of their experience and knowledge. We had a friend teach Nick how to build these construction boxes.

Nick: Yeah, we were prepared to take on the interior build. However, I don’t think either of us really knew what we were getting into, but we were both willing to learn, do it, seek advice, and sort of figure it out along the way.

Well it seems like it worked out successfully.

Nick: Thank you. We definitely see any minor little flaws, but if you look at the whole picture, we agree with you that it’s beautiful.

Jessica: As we were designing the bus, and putting time and effort into it, right? We’re realizing we’re spending a lot of money and a lot of time to fill this bus out for what, one week on the Playa? We were like, “This needs to be used more than just one time.” Everything in our bus is built with multifunctional purpose in mind. The bed also converts to seating. The countertop is used to store our kitchen stuff as well as be a functional countertop, et cetera et cetera. We wanted the bus to also have a multipurpose, not just going to Burning Man.

As Nick explained, he’s a photographer, I’ve had a passion for photography and videography my whole life; I just never did much with it or learned much about it. Nick was like, “I want to be able to take this stuff out and go out to these remote areas and be able to live comfortably and wait for that perfect moment for that photo.” And sometimes that takes up to several days of being out somewhere. And I said, “Well do you get to go explore and I have to stay back at a desk job? I want to do this, too.” We started shifting our focus to leaving behind what a normal house would be like and started traveling in the bus. He can expand his portfolio, and on the side, I can still work remote for my career as well as expand my own photography skills.

You’re doing all of your work on the bus?

Nick: Correct.

Jessica: Yeah.

That means you’re spending all of your time together?

Nick: Yeah.

Jessica: Yeah.

And that’s cool? Nobody needs alone time?

Jessica: Oh no, we definitely find our outlet for alone time. It can be challenging on your relationship, for sure. But at the same time, it’s been improving our relationship. In a normal house, you have the space to kind of avoid each other, right like let’s say we had our little tiff, and I say, “I’m not gonna talk to you.” And I go in the other room, and I can actually escape for a whole evening of not having to see Nick. But we’re in a bus now, 100 square feet, so I can’t really be like, “I’m gonna escape into the room,” and I’m just moving three feet down the bus. So, our tiffs don’t really last long anymore. If anything, we get over them quickly, right? Within ten minutes. Like, “Turn that smile back on, let’s get on the road.” And we’re over and done with it. You don’t time to let things last and keep going on. In terms of finding our own ways of escaping, I guess, or finding our peace, I do yoga, I do hula hooping, I go trail running. Nick does the mountain biking.

Nick: If I can go skydiving, I will. But getting back on the needing space thing, I think that the bus has improved our communication skills in general in letting each other know how we feel. If one of us is mad at the other, we’ll just straight up say it. “Hey, I’m upset because of this reason” as opposed to letting it stew and stir.

That’s nice. I mean, I guess that wouldn’t necessarily work for everyone, but that’s definitely the best possible outcome, right? Have there been things you’ve had to let go of, like are there things that you’re surprised by the changes you had to make in your life being easier than you thought it would be?

Nick: Well, so for me, things that I was unable to bring with me that were tough are tools. There’s times when I wish I had this tool or that tool so I could fix this or that. Or install this, install that. That was probably the hardest part for me, was letting go of tools and having space to store those items. Things that I thought I would want more and haven’t needed are camera ones. I used to have a ton of camera gear and a bunch of it has been passed off to a friend to kind of hang onto it as I need it. And it’s been since July, and I haven’t used any of it. To be honest, I haven’t really needed any of it as much as I thought I used to need it. So perhaps with time, I get rid of those things, and I think Jessica’s got a handful of stuff.

Jessica: Oh, I had so many clothes. And I love shopping. At first, I was like, “How am I going to live with just ten pairs of leggings and ten shirts? How is this going to be possible?” I have two drawers full of shirts at home, and now being down to one little cubby for shirts. One little cubby pretty much for everything. At first. I thought it was going to be challenging, but actually having less things been way more freeing, and it’s been exciting. I actually found myself mailing home half of my clothes that I brought along. I don’t even get to this part of the bottom of the drawer of my little cubby. It’s crazy how little you can live with, and by living with less, it’s almost like we get to have more.

That’s nice. And it was a surprise?

Jessica: Definitely. ‘Cause we had a lot of stuff. We had a 1,500-square foot house, and we lived in Tahoe. A lot of friends would always come up. We’d be entertaining and hosting.

Nick: And when we say a lot of stuff, it wasn’t like we had cluttered stuff. We kept it neat and nice, very similar to our bus. For two people in 1,500 square feet, it may appear to be very clean and tidy, but there’s actually kind of a lot of things that you have. It is surprising to have to get rid of those. And even now, we each only have two drawers for all of our clothes, and I still have way too much stuff. One of my drawers is dedicated to toys and work stuff, and the other one’s just for clothes, and I still have too many clothes.

Huh. I guess it makes sense, I think we have a tendency to fill up as much space as we have available to us.

Jessica: For sure.

For other people, like couples who are considering some van or bus living, what would you tell them that you didn’t know before you undertook this journey?

Jessica: Oh, there’s a lot. One, be sure to research your vehicle. Before we bought the bus, we made sure that the engine was gonna be solid. There’s no point in buying something that’s just gonna break. Unfortunately, after a few months, I mean this ’88 bus started breaking down. And had we have really checked out the engine, do you think it would have, I don’t know if it would have lasted?

Nick: I mean I’m very thankful that it broke down and we have a new engine. But I would agree with Jessica that yeah, researching whatever sort of vehicle you’re going to be in. And personally, I would recommend the reliability route rather than the uniqueness, cool vibe route. And I would definitely say, one of the first nights we watched the YouTube videos, some guy said, “Get a bottle of Advil, because you’re going to have a lot of headaches.” And I would agree with that guy in that.

Jessica: Yeah, and make sure that for whatever vehicle you’re planning on converting, too, specifically about the engine or parts, you wanna make sure that the parts are still available and that they’re being made. We have a windshield wiper that is very old, and no one makes these types of windshield wipers anymore, so everything that we end up putting in the bus for the engine, pretty much, or anything interior-wise has been ultimately custom made. Custom fitted. Custom in that it also adds a custom price tag. When you think, “Oh, it’s just gonna be this,” it ends up being twice the amount. Because for whatever reason, it just ends up being something that’s unique, and “we don’t make this anymore,” or “it has to be special fitted.” Your budget will definitely get blown out more than what you might originally anticipate.


Jessica: Our advice would be just to have fun, and try to appreciate every aspect of it. Once you’re in the bus or your van, it’s a different set of lifestyle changes that happen. It’s not just building to get into it; every day now is a whole new challenge.

Nick: And appreciating each step of the process. We thought it was really enjoyable. We put the hardwood floors in. Very enjoyable process. Each step of the way has its own pros and cons. Whether you buy a vehicle totally built or you build it yourself, appreciating each step of the process is important.

I would say the other piece of advice that I have is to not rush it. A lot of people tend to have these big goals, like, “I need to go all the way to South America in X amount of time,” but one of our mottos is to not drive more than four hours from one location to another. So, we’re not really missing things, or we’re missing less. If we’re driving from Washington all the way to California, we’re missing the entire state of Oregon. And there’s a lot in between point A and point B. No matter where you’re going. So don’t rush it, I would say.

That’s smart.

Jessica: We have a couple. What are the other rules that we have? Don’t drive more than four hours …

Nick: Don’t drive past the sunset.

Jessica: Or, don’t pass up a sunset. And try to wake up early for sunrises.

Nick: And try to stay at every location a minimum of three days. ‘Cause that also keeps your gas prices down too, right? I mean, driving a school bus that gets eight miles per gallon adds up. If we drove every single day, it would quadruple the price of everything we’re doing.