Courtney Stutelberg knew, somewhere between Maine and Florida, when she looked down and the dash read 15 miles per gallon, that she’d picked out the perfect free-wheeling home. The willowy, brazen redhead, whose dad taught her how to drive a semi at age 13, doesn’t regret much. “A lot of people are afraid to rely on themselves,” she says. “On the road you have no choice.” Her new digs may have already cost her transmission lines and a $1,300 tow, but it’s good on gas for its size, and the wheels go round, the wipers go swoosh, and the horn goes beep. And if her previous four school bus conversions are any indication, she’ll double her investment when this one sells. Stutelberg and her boyfriend, Rom Rackley, are really in it for the lifestyle, though — the freedom that comes with buying, moving in, fixing up, and selling these “skoolies.” They’re living the American dream on wheels and off the grid wherever the road takes them, until the next conversion, and providing the same for an increasing number of like-minded individuals taking life on the open road.
I first met the roadies walking back to my old Honda Accord, which at that time last fall was stuffed to the gills with clothes, my bike, and whatever else I’d shoved in for those two-week trips between my Maine crashpad and my Boston apartment, and on assignment in between. It was becoming less clear which was home, and, there in the parking lot of The Rack ski bar passing through Carrabassett Valley, I heard Rackley holler over, “Come say hi!” Making two new friends at that time was like hitting the 2020 lottery, so I pulled an Adirondack chair up to a fire pit, and 6 feet away, I listened to their pandemic story. They’d driven to Maine last June from Colorado to wait it out in the school buses they were converting in their friend’s backyard in Benton, just north of Augusta. The thought of having everything in one movable spot, and a safer alternative to the hotel room I’d been staying in for work that weekend, had me convinced, at least for a while, that I wanted a skoolie, too. No wonder both of their clients — Rackley prefers “friends” — last year were travel nurses in search of a COVID-free bubble. With so many of us now working remotely and longing for an outdoor adventure away from the crowd, it all made a lot of sense. Paring down, chasing the seasons on an open road, social distance, new adventures, new friends? Sign me up.
But, the couple told me, skoolies have quite a few key advantages over RVs, too. At a third of the price — averaging between $2,000 and $5,000 at surplus auctions and used bus dealerships — they’re bigger with better bones and a longer shelf life. School buses are built with steel ribs across the body to withstand a collision and protect kids, while most RVs are assembled quickly from a wood substitute that looks a lot like thick cardboard. School buses run on diesel-powered “million-mile” motors, as Rackley calls them, with quadruple the amount of drive time. And there’s no shortage of them.
A few weeks later, on the road again last November, I decided to see for myself. At the end of a long dirt drive pretty much in the middle of nowhere, I was greeted by a tiny manx kitten named Fern, for her curly tail. In her short few weeks in this world, Fern made herself at home inside a matte, army green beast. She nestled between Rackley and Stutelberg on a bright mustard couch in a boho chic, open-concept tiny home, which has a kitchen almost as big as mine. Their most recent skoolie conversion was crawling with plants, with distressed wood walls (which were reclaimed from pallets on the side of the road) and chunky slabs of knotty Maine pine for countertops. But in dirt-cheap style for days, the real showstopper that had me wishing it was home was a late 1800s, skinny and rustic woodstove the couple scored on Facebook Marketplace and set on a backdrop of hand-painted tile from Mexico they got on Amazon. “We’d refinished the woodstove and the paint started flaking off so I polished it up with a wire brush and liked how it looked even better,” says Rackley. Their fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants design reads like an artist’s dream loft, a trademark vibe that carries through all of their skoolies.
This one brings more luxury though, a 40-footer with 72,000 miles. It used to transport MIT students. Light floods in through massive windows, and there’s a shower — never to be taken for granted on the road — with room for two and a skylight. The back is dedicated to a queen bed and a clothes rack, but the real splurge was the solar paneling on the roof.
The build took longer than usual — a month and a half — but the skoolies always sell within weeks, to one of their 12,500 Instagram followers, for double their investment. These days, everyone from millennials to baby boomers are scouring the Internet for the perfect skoolie, or tips on converting one. It’s no surprise mobile home sales soared last year, during the pandemic, and the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association claims they’ll keep climbing to reach $77 billion by 2026. “Every time Courtney or I post a new photo, like clockwork you can expect 30 or 40 messages within a couple of minutes, usually asking for a step-by-step process,” says Rackley. “It takes most people years, and they’re looking at us like ‘How the hell are you converting these buses in less than three weeks?’” The simple truth is you need carpentry and electrical skills, and calluses.
Their last skoolie sold for $35,000 to a travel nurse named Alison Lee, who’s been driving it from assignment to assignment treating COVID patients and touring the country in her off months. “I can park where I want, and I don’t have to use my living stipend for an Airbnb or a housing contract with roommates, which is risky with COVID, especially if you’re both nurses,” says Lee. “It’s funny. People in different cities have different reactions to the bus, Courtney had warned me about that. Some aren’t into it, but in Portland, Maine, everyone was smiling, laughing, or clapping and cheering me on.”
Her 24-foot colgate-green chariot is everything she’d hoped — spacious, and well-built with meticulous finishes and a better turn radius than a truck. It sure beats her old RV that she says, “felt cheap and had a loft over the driver’s seat that was too low to sleep in.” Lee, who says many of her nursing friends have bought homes on wheels since the need for travel nurses skyrocketed in the pandemic, was the second travel nurse in 2020 to snap up a skoolie from the couple. Before that, in 2019, one went to a woman living with her elderly mother looking for some space of her own, and another to a guy who rents out RVs and buses on his land.
“People are going on the road because they want to escape from the confines of everyday society — the 9-to-5 job and paying thousands toward rent or their mortgage. That’s the freedom of living this lifestyle, finding a more affordable and fulfilling way to get outside of the normalcy of that American dream,” says Stutelberg. “You travel freely and it gives you alternative living with more purpose than owning a lot of things.”
She purged most of her belongings four years ago after leaving home in Minnesota to hit the open road in a Chevy Suburban. Stutelberg, who’s 26, ended up in Alaska and Canada before upgrading to an $8,000 leaky, used RV. She tore down walls to find mold, and turned to school buses. In her travels she met Rackley, a jack of all trades with a thick black beard and mischievous smile. “If it’s an eighth of an inch off, I’m gonna recut it. Courtney’s always like, ‘It’s good enough,’ so it’s a good combination,” says Rackley, who originally built million-dollar homes. He turned to minimalism after his first tiny home renovation nine years ago. “The owner was like a thousand times more grateful for my work than the people who could buy anything,” he says. That’s the idea. Whether it’s a full-time business or a part-time adventure, there are plenty of reasons to hit the road and never look back.
Anna Fiorentino can be reached at email@example.com.