The Time I Traded Labor For Free Lodging In a Converted School Bus

The Time I Traded Labor For Free Lodging In a Converted School Bus

What started as a brief stay at a Hipcamp listing near Zion National Park turned into a weeks-long work exchange that my partner and I will always remember.
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Welcome to You Lived Where?—series about compromise, creativity, and the places people have called home.

In January 2019, my partner Jose and I sold everything we owned and took a year off work to road trip from my hometown in Maryland to the West Coast, camping in national parks along the way. After living in New Orleans for a few years, our goal was to travel and find the place we’d eventually want to settle down in. We had a tent, camping stove, sleeping bags and just about every implement we needed to survive off-grid. However, we underestimated the desert’s frigid winter evenings. After shivering through a sleepless night in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, we opted to wait out the last remnants of cold weather by utilizing the unconventional and affordable lodgings on Hipcamp.

We searched for places near national parks and monuments and found a pop-up camper on a rural property outside Zion National Park in Utah that fit the bill. For around $50 per night, we would have warmth, privacy, and a quick drive to a part of Zion that wasn’t choked with tourists. When we arrived, we realized the camper was just one of our hosts’ lodging options—the couple who lived there, Dana and Bill, created a collection of colorful, private accommodations for up to a dozen travelers: the camper, a converted school bus, another solo RV, and two bedrooms in a cordoned-off space on the main home’s upper level. Around the main house, there was a wide yard with a trampoline and multiple gardens with flowers and vegetables, as well as an adjoining chicken coop. Deer often wandered around in the mornings; the only plant that naturally deterred them were green onions and chives, Dana told us. We were encouraged to hand-pick some each morning for our meals, along with fresh eggs.

As we settled into our stay in the camper, Jose and I whispered amongst ourselves, wondering if our hosts would, potentially, trade labor on the property for free short-term lodging so we could put down roots for a brief period. We were eyeing what we thought was the most curious of the accommodations: the bright-blue school bus. We figured it never exactly hurt to ask. Dana was wildly enthusiastic about the idea. She said that she and Bill were getting older and needed help with projects like laying down turf, tending to the chickens, and working in the garden. If it was up to her, she said, we could stay as long as we liked.

Most nights there were few visitors, so Jose and I could cook, eat, and wash ourselves easily with the space to ourselves. But that changed on weekends.

The converted bus—one side painted with butterflies, a rainbow, and the message "We Are One"; the tail end hoisted up on a pile of bricks to level it—served as a welcome sign of sorts. Dana and Bill’s property sat between Cedar City and St. George, an area home to a large Mormon community with varying degrees of conservatism. (Our hosts were ex-members of the church but adored their community and neighbors regardless.) 

As Dana guided Jose and I into the bus for the first time, she described the joy she felt as she decorated it in the years prior. Neon-orange taffeta curtains enveloped the studio-size interior; a king-size air mattress with a handmade quilt and white wooden headboard occupied most of the layout. In the few footsteps between the bed and the entrance, there was a round wooden table covered with a red-and-white checkerboard cloth. Around it, there were two chairs upholstered in bright-yellow fabric, where we could sit and have coffee in the morning. Dana installed shelves along both sides of the interior. On them, perfectly sliced USPS boxes held neat rows of National Geographic, each yellow spine noting the issue date. Over the next few weeks, when we weren’t doing our agreed-upon tasks or exploring the surrounding area in our downtime, I’d often find myself on the air mattress flipping through those magazines to read about other curious places.

That didn’t mean that the bus was perfect. A wasp’s nest was lodged by the front door and, though it was curtained off from the interior, Jose had to douse the entrance with repellent every morning to prevent us from getting stung while walking between the bus and the main house, where the kitchen and bathroom were located. (Despite such efforts, we both suffered a few stings.) That was another trade-off: Though the bus had electricity and strong Wi-Fi for us to catch up on all the Netflix we wanted, we had to go into Dana and Bill’s house—in a dedicated section that Dana called "the guest cottage"—to use the kitchen and bath appliances. Most nights there were few visitors, so Jose and I could cook, eat, and wash ourselves easily with the space to ourselves. 

But that changed on weekends. We’d often have to queue for showers or maneuver around others to cook meals. One morning, a traveler from California huffed past me, muttering that I made her late for a paid tour because she had to wait to use the shower. During the few weeks that Jose and I hovered in the space between short-term tenants and travelers, we met a handful of guests passing through the property. A pair of childhood friends from New Jersey who were driving cross-country so one of them could start her dream job as a horse trainer. An English couple who’d just landed from Brazil after months traveling across South America. While Jose and I liked this type of communal living setup, it was very clear when others didn’t appreciate sharing a kitchen and bathroom with strangers. Despite those inconveniences, the bus was a cozy and secluded place to return to after tiring days spent fulfilling our work-exchange duties. We kept a plug-in heater roaring by our feet to stay toasty throughout the chilly nights. Before bedtime, I split open the neon taffeta curtains to gaze up at the clear sky, lit by the bright moon and constellations.

After a few weeks, when our end of the work-trade bargain was up, we decided it was time to move on. We missed camping. We wanted to see somewhere new again, even though we’d miss the plug-in heater, quick Wi-Fi, and Christmas lights strung on the walls below the shelves of National Geographic. Six months later, after Jose and I completed our road trip and settled in New Mexico, I reached out to Dana, who’d become something of a friend. She told me that not long after our stay, she and Bill were forced to shut down the majority of accommodations on their property after an order from the local government. Dana surmised that an envious neighbor reported them for unlicensed lodgings.

We drove to Utah to spend Thanksgiving with Dana and Bill since our families were, by then, on opposite sides of the country. As we made our way down the road toward their property, I caught a glimpse of the big blue bus covered in a thick blanket of snow. While it brought back a sudden flush of pleasant memories, I thought to myself: Sometimes the best places to live are just for a season.

Related Reading:

11 Skillful School Bus Conversions That Get an A-Plus in Our Book

Here’s What They Don’t Tell You About Living in a Tiny House

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