Day 3 1/2 : The climb

In what is becoming something of a pattern, last night we experienced another stunning sunset arrival into an extremely photogenic national park.
Truth be told, it was more of a dusk arrival, a bit later than we had hoped or anticipated, but stunning nonetheless.

Hank taking in the last light over Yellowstone Lake.

Hank taking in the last light over Yellowstone Lake.

We would have arrived earlier, but are still learning to deal with the quirks of traveling in a school bus. While modern technology and navigational equipment is hugely helpful for keeping ignorant adventurers on route, google’s usually reliable estimation of travel-time seems to have been calibrated for vehicles with adequate horsepower to climb a hill without overheating. While there are many benefits, I will openly admit that converting a school bus instead of a coach bus or proper motor home comes along with a few disadvantages, like having short ceilings and and an underpowered engine. My particular bus has a 185hp engine, which is just fine for ambling around residential Minnesotan roads with a handful of school children. It is, however, woefully underpowered for hauling thousands of pounds of plywood up a mountain. There were a number of switchback turns that warned us to slow down below 40mph. Which is comical when you’re traveling 25. The caravan of vehicles that piled up behind us was certainly none too pleased with the speed we were reducing them too, and I’m sure standing in the back door and taking pictures of the pileup didn’t help.

Giving the engine a chance to rest.

Giving the engine a chance to rest.

After a few short pitstops to let the engine cool down and allow patient motorists to pass, we finally made it to a plateau. We were more than an hour behind schedule, along a route that should only have taken an hour to traverse. The emotions climbing those mountains were nothing short of intense. In one moment we were desperately pleading the engine to continue carrying us forward along a steep stretch, and the next we were yelling with excitement at a vista (yelling mainly because we didn’t know how else to express the mostly-natural high). The best seat in the house during these moments is, as usual, from the top of the bus. I’ve ridden in a number of convertibles, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like having the top half of my torso stick out of the skylight, 360 degrees of vision, wind rushing through much more than my hair, experiencing a sun-splashed canyon unfold around the cliff-side bend.

So, the bus is slow. But at what cost? An extra hour in the mountains? It’s a compromise. Like everything else about the bus. The bus strikes a balance between affordability, livability, mobility, and a handful of other -ilities. It’s a jack of all trades. Although “jack” may actually be overstating it. The question seems to be whether the trade-offs are worth it. As a road-trip vehicle, absolutely. As a living space… I don’t know. There are a lot of conveniences normally associated with modern life that aren’t terribly fleshed out. An as-of-yet unused porta-potty can’t quite compare with a flushing toilet. A foot-pump sink in the kitchen is no match for flowing water. A cooler is a pitiful replacement for a fridge. Shower? We don’t need no stinkin’ shower. (But really, we could use a shower right now.) All of these systems and conveniences are entirely plausible upgrades for the bus, and many of them are planned for the not-terribly distant future. But each one comes at a cost. Flowing water, flushing toilets, and showers consume large amounts of water requiring large tanks, which require driving the bus to a designated location for frequent filling and dumping. If the bus were parked permanently on a piece of land, we could potentially hook up to ground water and a septic system, but that comes at the cost of mobility… Everything is a compromise.

At the moment however, the compromise is worth it.

Bridge Bay Campgrounds at night.

Bridge Bay Campgrounds at night.

30 Responses to Day 3 1/2 : The climb

  1. John Date

    OK guys. Regarding the porta-potti, lose it and get an AirHead (Google it and be amazed). Granted, you have neither the time or money to make this change, but as many liveaboards have found, an AirHead and a bag of peat are vastly superior to “real” toilet plumbing and holding tank issues.

    As a former architect-turned-small-space-designer, I’m so impressed with your adventure, and hope that this forever changes your views on thousand square foot foyers and money-no-object design work. One has no idea how unchallenging space design is until a major requirement of success is safe, reliable and, yes – fun – living.

    Good luck in your travels. All of them.

    • Hank Butitta

      I love getting comments like this who have experience with architecture and particularly tiny spaces, thank you so much!

    • J Hargrove

      John, I’m sure they are loving your positive input. Nice.

  2. Stephen

    Here is the link John Date is referring to:

    I can say that if you think 25 mph is slow, trying bicycling up the Rockies and Cascades with 40 or so pounds of stuff on your bicycle as you ‘take your lane’ to ensure you don’t get clipped by RV’s with their extended mirrors.

    Nevertheless, your trip reminds me of my Bikecentennial trips in 1976 & 1980 when I rode from Pueblo, CO to Yorktown, Va and then from Portland, Or to Williamsburg, VA. Ah, those were the days my friend.

    I just found your site from a story in the New York (City) Daily News.

    • Hank Butitta

      That sounds like a mighty route to be pedaling! I bet there are stories to be told from that trip!

  3. Grant

    I agree with John Date, don’t even consider a flush toilet in a vehicle like this. Composting toilet is much simpler and will save a ton of weight.

    Regarding your overheating problems, there are several things you can do to help alleviate the problem. Firstly, make sure you have the best shrouding around the radiator that you can. All air coming in through the grill should go through the radiator, not around it. This may require some cheap aluminum or thin steel sheet and some elbow grease, but it’s worth it. Secondly, consider additives like Water Wetter that allow the cooling system to work more efficiently. Lastly, consider hooking up an active cooling device to the radiator. The easiest way is to use a simple 12V windshield washer pump (or divert your current pump, if it’s seldom used) and a few gallons of water to spray water through a hose and nozzle onto the front of the radiator. The evaporative cooling effect will really help to lower radiator temperatures when you’re going slow and not getting much air through the grill.

    Good luck!

    • Hank Butitta

      If we take any more long haul journeys I’ll definitely look into the overheating tips, it gets tiresome pulling over all the time! And as soon as I can afford to invest in a composter I’d love to get rid of this portable! Thanks!

  4. Curran Bishop

    I think you should build a retro-looking roofrack (with a wooden slat “cargo” deck) between the skylights that could serve as a deck for sitting on (the pic of you watching the sunrise from the roof inspired me).

    This is an awesome project, and I love how you pulled it off/the result. Great Job!

    • Hank Butitta

      A roof-rack/deck is a must! We love using the roof and it could be much more functional.

  5. Clifford

    I realize that at this time, you may have neither the time, nor the money, but in the future you may wish to upgrade your engine to alleviate the under-powered and overheating one you have. Contact your local Chevy dealer, and they can fit it for a turbo charged diesel and electric cooling fan. You may also need to have your transmission gearing changed to pull the mountains easier, though that will lower your fuel mileage. A seven 70 gearing would be a good all-around ratio, giving you decent mileage on the flats, and better pulling power for the mountains. I was an over the road truck driver for 12 years if that helps. Great adventure, enjoy the beauty, and keep drinking in the sunsets. I have never seen two of the same.

    • Hank Butitta

      It’s definitely worth consideration! I still have lots of bus research to do, so thanks for the advice!

  6. Pam Wall Marr

    I just found you on here and am loving following you, I can’t help but to want to send you some cheesy Partridge Family Itunes to play as you go up the next mountain you have to tackle so you can entertain the cars behind you lol 🙂

    I hope that More youth in our junior and high schools get to see what you are doing you for you all are a inspiration that will hopefully keep them in school!

    I wish you were coming through Houston, Texas I would love to get some of my lady friends from the MD Anderson Cancer Hospital and go for a ride in your bus!

    Safe Journey and Enlightening Travels

    • Hank Butitta

      We’re talking right now about doing a trip that would visit high-school and middle-school students, it would be fun to inspire some kids to get out there and make!

  7. Philip Schulte

    There are several possible reasons, for the overheating issue.
    First, the low horsepower engine and the fact that it has accrued many running hours, is working at 100 percent output, nearly 100 percent of the time. That’s a lot of heat to dissipate.
    Second, the automatic transmission has a cooler loop built into the radiator. The transmission generates an enormous amount of heat, which also needs removed.
    If you throw in the fact that the radiator is most likely partially plugged, both internally and externally, the cooling capacity is lowered considerably.
    Lastly, the water pump impeller could be slipping, causing reduced coolant flow.

    If left unresolved, you have the possibility of major repairs and expenses, in the near future.

    The transmission fluid must be kept cool. If the engine is overheating, the transmission is as well.
    Throw in the fact that this was a school bus previously, which makes a lot of starts and stops, and the transmission has already had a hard life.
    I work at an International Truck dealership, and we see a lot of the same type of issues, from all makes of trucks and buses. Feel free to contact me with any questions.
    I wish you all, the best of luck on your journey.

  8. Kellie Becket

    I”m so thrilled that I found your blog. I especially like the picture from the top of the bus. It’s a little like traveling by motorcycle – the full view, the smells of the forest or flowers or ocean, etc, the sounds, and yes, you can hear over the noise of a Honda. If me and my Honda ever gets behind you and your bus on the roads in the future, I’ll just pleasantly wave as I pass you.

    • Hank Butitta

      We’ll wave back!

  9. the hiking viking

    Must say I chuckled a bit seeing a bug SPLAT! on the roof top camera lens while watching the video. Didn’t I just read about how slow the bus goes? Lol. You’d think bugs would simply ‘bounce’ off that bus.

    I took the family on a two week “Great Western States Blitz” vacation a few years ago. 5,000 miles, 18 states, 50+ National Park sites including Devils Tower! Two weeks on the road in our mini-van, the four of us. Tent camping each night under the amazing blanket of stars. Amazing journey we’ll never forget. Cramped but cozy.

    Regards and much success to you guys. Stop for a geocache or two along the way!

    Happy Trails,
    Dan from Ohio

  10. Nic Scogna

    I owned a bus in the hopes of converting. Burned out the transmission. Then 2000mi later the engine went… I opted for an RV (which had a nice roof rack) and it too caused nightmares from the hill climbs and accidentally the roof rack got caught on a low hanging branch in Petaluma which was not a happy part of the adventure. Be careful of parking your bus in towns.

    Rado be well safe journeys. 🙂

  11. Samantha

    Stopping at a truck stop instead of a regular gas station for fuel will usually yield you the opportunity for a free shower….just saying. Also, any campground I’ve always visited had shower facilities. Would it be more convenient to have these things on board…sure, but at what cost? You’ve already stated that the hp output for the vehicle is low, so adding those extra pounds of water might not be the best solution. Keeping the vehicle functioning is more likely than not more important than the convenience of having an onboard shower. I’d rather invest in getting a 12v cooler, myself.

    • Hank Butitta

      We need to do a better job of tracking truck stops down, that would really be handy!

  12. Margaret Moore

    My husband and I drove to West Yellowstone, MT this summer to visit our son. We drove a Ford Ranger loaded with a motorcycle in the back. Your story of “the climb” reminded me of being passed on a HILL in Wyoming by a loaded cement truck! Now, that’s embarrassing! Good luck on your journey. I’m envious!

  13. billy

    showers. truck stops. small charge. billy

  14. Jason

    Sadly in the second picture it appears your rear suspension is sagging…. did you reinforce the frame ore suspension in any way to account for the increased weight?

    • Hank Butitta

      We didn’t reinforce the suspension, we’ve added less weight than the rated capacity. It seems to be holding up pretty well so far!

  15. Jonathan T

    Hank –
    I am leaning towards incinerated head myself – cost is apx 2,000 but if you can get by without the shower then it might save weight for water storage, the little engine that could might love you more
    Would love to see a pic of the line up of cars behind you on the hill
    Safe Travels

  16. Em

    I think education and university should be on live project like this…I can see how my Interior Design degree could of been enlightend with this kind of process…hands on learning…
    Good luck and thanks for the blog,

  17. Ann

    have you discovered the app for finding truck stops yet?

    • Hank Butitta

      It sounds so obvious when you put it that way… off to the app store!

  18. Frenchfarmer

    If your engine is getting too hot then change down a gear.
    I’ve pulled one and a half tons of sand uphill with a Reanault 4 but I was in first gear and just using enough powerto keep it rolling.
    If you are pushing your foot to the floor at 25 you are in the wrong gear.

    • Hank Butitta

      We’ve dropped the gear all the way down. 185 horses get tired hauling that rig up a mountain!

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