The cool bus: the Wapiti couple transforms a vehicle into a house


With the roar of power tools bouncing off nearby peaks, an Elk couple transform a children’s school bus transporting into the recreational vehicle of their dreams.

For many travelers, Eirik and Valerie Swensrud’s Little Cabin in the Wapiti Valley is a must-see destination. Just above the hill, tens of thousands of vehicles – including many opulent RVs – drive to and from Yellowstone National Park; the couple only need to drive about 30 minutes to get to the east gate and their yard offers million dollar views. But for the Swensruds and their many pets, the hearty vehicle conversion offers a chance to load up and hit the road to satisfy their travel bugs and visit other beautiful destinations.

With their two dogs totaling over 260 pounds, their pet turkey, named Spaghetti, and other assorted “furry babies,” nothing but a large home on wheels would do. They tried out a pickup truck first – also a transformation – but soon realized that nothing less than a 36-footer would meet their needs.

“We wanted the comfort of being able to stretch out,” said Valérie.

The hundreds of hours it takes to transform the Bluebird-branded bus will give them a sense of satisfaction that only builders know, but the real reason for the many months of work is the money.

“We can’t afford a $ 100,000 platform. And these are the cheapest, ”Eirik explained.

The couple wanted the comforts of home, including a full bathroom.

“When you go exploring and you’re covered in dust and dirt, it’s just nice to take a shower,” Eirik said. “Even if it’s just for the weekend, going to different places like Medicine Lodge, there are often no showers.”

However, a manufacturer’s motorhome with enough space for a master suite – with a bathroom, kitchen, and plenty of living space for the crew – is prohibitively expensive for most people. people.

Recreational vehicles come in three different classes. Class C vehicles are the size of a van, at approximately 100 square feet; they rarely have a shower or toilet – or a space for dogs the size of a small horse. They can cost between $ 50,000 and $ 150,000.

Class B RVs are a bit bigger, with about twice as much living space as a minivan, and prices ranging from $ 100,000 to over a quarter of a million dollars, according to the manufacturer.

Class A motorhomes (the size of a bus) are the largest, ranging from $ 200,000 to over $ 1 million. Some of the nicer Class A buses even have garages for a sports car and an expandable second stage.

The Marchi Mobile EleMMent Palazzo Superior is the world’s most expensive motorhome at $ 3 million. The interior features a huge kitchen, a king-size bed in the private master suite with a rain shower, large-screen TVs and an expandable roof terrace. The Furrion Elysium is essentially a chic penthouse with the addition of a rooftop hot tub and helipad.

Pay attention to the budget

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The budget for the Swensrud is approximately $ 10,000, including the cost of the vehicle. Eirik, who is now almost retired, has spent his career as both an auto mechanic and facility maintenance manager. His experience gives him the skills to perform mechanical repairs, plumbing, electrical wiring and connections and cabinetry. It also takes an active imagination and teamwork.

“I sat down and sketched out a floor plan, then showed it to Valerie for approval,” he said. “She’s the boss.”

The recent dramatic increase in building materials has not helped keep the total cost low. The Swensruds got creative, recycling wood from other projects and looking for materials that looked good and could do the job, but that weren’t necessarily meant for the interior. One example is the corrugated metal used for the shower walls. Usually deployed as a siding or roofing for exteriors, the metal is waterproof and has that popular “distress” look.

The bus is powered by lithium-ion polymer batteries which are recharged by the bus’s original 300-amp alternator and, soon, by solar cells on the roof. Tanks for storing fresh and gray water are located under the arched bed at the rear.

The last thing they’ll attack is the exterior. The bus will become the canvas for Valerie’s mother, Greta Olivas, an artist from Austin, Texas.

“We don’t know what it will look like yet, but it will be beautiful,” said Valerie.

“Anything but yellow,” Eirik joked.

Until it was painted, the couple covered the “s” and “h” on the front lettering, making it the “cool bus”. They found it for sale in Hysham, northern Montana. Most used school buses are purchased from school districts by wholesalers, such as Central States Bus Sales, Eirik said.

“They get most of the coupons because they buy in bulk,” he said. “It’s hard to find a good deal.

The couple paid $ 5,000 for the bus after a long search. Because it comes from a Nordic location, the bus has extra insulation and double-glazed windows. This saved the family the time and money it would have cost to do it on their own. In addition, they plan to add a ceiling that looks like old tin tiles but is made of insulating foam.

“There’s already 4 inches of highly compressed fiberglass up there,” Eirik said.

The bus was also equipped with a Caterpillar turbocharged diesel engine. “It’s basically a little semi-final,” he said.

Thanks to his decades as a mechanic, at least maintenance labor is cheap. But heavy parts are expensive and “if you don’t have the skills you need a much bigger budget,” Eirik said.

Even replacing all six tires can cost up to $ 5,000 without installation. The benefit of recycling a bus is space, durability of the vehicle, and savings of tens of thousands of dollars.

At about 6 feet tall, Eirik can stand up straight on the bus. This was not the case in the van.

“I was always on my knees in the doggone thing. Or sitting on little chairs, ”he said.

They could have added a pop-up on the roof of the pickup truck, but it would cost over $ 5,000 for a kit, he said. Size doesn’t matter to Valerie. At around 5’3 ” she doesn’t need a lot of headroom. What mattered to her was space for everyone to be comfortable, including Murphy, the 160-pound Newfoundland, and Tippie, the three-legged St. Bernard.

Valerie is the former manager of the Park County Animal Shelter in Cody, and now works for Happy Tails, a pet boarding company.

A shared love

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Eirik and Valerie met while working at Pahaska Tepee, a lodge near Yellowstone. Their passion for live music and their love of animals made them the perfect couple and they got married about eight years ago. Eirik is also a musician and most recently he was lead guitarist for Murder of Crows, a now defunct punk band from the Cody area.

The stereo on the bus sounds rich, but bluegrass was the theme of Sunday’s workday. The Swensruds plan to name their recycled RV “Puddles” after their recently deceased pet duck.

“She was a great duck,” Eirik said.

“She was the best duck,” replied Valérie.

They have a way with animals and most are saved from bad situations. They had two domestic turkeys, but one was a bit annoying. Spaghetti is the perfect surveillance turkey, said Valerie, gulping noisily several times as human or animal intruders approached the cabin. Grizzly bears are frequent visitors to the Wapiti region and the warning gives the couple time to muster the troops.

The Swensruds already take trips on the “cool bus”, although they have work to do.

“The worst thing for a diesel is to leave them idle,” Eirik warned.

The bus is the motorhome of their dreams. It only remains to convince the rest of the world. Recycled vans and buses often come with a negative stereotype. “They think, oh, because you’re driving a school bus you’re a bum,” he said. “It’s just not true.

“There are people from all walks of life who are looking for that kind of space and don’t want to break the bank – all walks of life – from people who have tons of money to people who are very poor,” Eirik said. “And I’m telling you what, the majority are people I want to date, because they’re real.”

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