A Year in a School Bus: Amid COVID-19, A Family Finds Freedom Traveling the American West

A Year in a School Bus: Amid(əˈmid) COVID-19, A Family Finds Freedom Traveling the American West

By Madeline Carlisle

Paula wakes up in her bus around 4:30 a.m. most days. She can usually still see the stars. She works for a few hours, often on freelance(ˈfrēˌlans) projects using her training as a biologist, and makes breakfast(ˈbrekfəst) when her 12-year-old son Max gets up around 7:00. (TIME has agreed to grant Paula and Max pseudonyms(ˈso͞odənim) out of concerns for their safety.) She feeds their dog and cat, and then she and Max, who is on the autism(ˈôˌtizəm) spectrum(ˈspektrəm), begin homeschooling. They follow specialized(ˈspeSHəˌlīzd), skills-based lesson plans to keep his work short and consistent—at least two to three hours a day, seven days a week. By 10:00, they usually “hit the ground running” on renovating(ˈrenəˌvāt) their bus, she says. They try to complete one project a day, big or small.

Paula, 39, and Max have lived in their 35-foot skoolie—a term for school buses which have been renovated into small mobile homes—for nearly a year, often traveling across public Bureau(ˈbyo͝orō) of Land Management (BLM) land in Arizona(ˌerəˈzōnə), California, Nevada(nəˈvadə, nəˈvädə) and Utah(ˈyo͞oˌtô, ˈyo͞oˌtä). BLM land makes up one-tenth of the land in the U.S.—much of which is in the American West—and huge portions(ˈpôrSH(ə)n) are available for dispersed(dəˈspərs) camping(ˈkampiNG), or camping away from developed recreation(ˌrekrēˈāSH(ə)n) facilities(fəˈsilədē).