As Elizabeth Hensley tours the U.S. in her Skoolie, the generosity of strangers inspires her to give it right back.
Follow her adventures on Instagram at @thelizapproach.
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Leah: Welcome to Wander By Proxy, a podcast featuring women’s travel stories that connect them more to themselves and the world around them. I’m Leah Falyn. And today we have Elizabeth Hensley, a writer and editor of Bus Life Adventure, who experienced the generosity of strangers and gave it right back as she toured her Skoolie around the U.S. Here’s Elizabeth.
Elizabeth: we looked at RVs, we looked at vans, we looked all different sorts of things. a lot of them are very expensive and then we were on Craigslist one day and we fit around a school bus in Florida, which was about. Eight hours from our house and it was on sale for $2,500. So we talked about it and we had looked up different ways that it could be converted.
And we really liked the idea that you can, it was a blank canvas. So you could do anything with it that you would want, unlike an RV, which is pretty much a, a set in floor plan. so I finished up. The year teaching. And I remember at the end of the year, I even told my students, I said, well, you might wonder what’s going to happen to me.
I’m going to be living on a school bus. And I showed them the picture of what we hope to do with it. What was going on and that sort of how this trip started.
Leah: Wow. That’s cool. You said students, are you an educator?
Elizabeth: So I was, I had an assistantship at the time, so I was not only taking classes. And then I was writing my thesis and then I was teaching, for two days a week. So I had all that on my plate. And then I knew for the final semester, which actually happened when, after I was on the road, all I had to do was write my thesis.
I was, the class was called American identities. And so it was all about looking at race, class, gender, all of these different things for freshmen students. And for me, that was so great because I got to sort of curate the class of, you know, what was really important. And my undergrad was in communication.
So I always wanted to start out with interpersonal communication skills and how that affects your identity. And so. at first I didn’t even have life on my radar at all. It was my partner’s idea to it. It involved in minimalism and downsizing and hitting the road. But I was a little bit resistant because that meant selling like, Almost everything that we owned to do this.
And, but as it got closer and as it became so unclear what the next step was, I started to embrace it. And then it was just really great because I could see a lot of the, the practical things I would tell my students, I was now going to be. Hitting those things head on by traveling and going into communities and seeing what’s really going on on the ground rather than just hearing it on the news every night, which in a lot of ways is kind of scary.
Like they make it pretty scary as far as, you know, what’s going on and what we are always hearing about.
Leah: Especially for women. So where was your first stop?
Elizabeth: So our first stop on the bus. And that’s actually where my story comes in is we went from Atlanta, the Atlanta Metro area to Savannah. And I will also say just as a practical tip for nomads, this was really helpful for us. We got memberships with boondockers welcome. And that way you can park on people’s property.
And. They just kind of are open to that. And so we didn’t know what we were doing and where we were going. as far as like staying overnight in the bus. So this was really helpful. And, the person that we ended up meeting her name was Susan. and she’s a retired, peace Corps nurse. And she had lived in Africa and traveled all over the world and she was just super fascinating and super accommodating to us.
Leah: And so that was right off the bat. Great start. where else did you go? No. And did you kind of sense a, a common theme amongst like the people and the strangers you were meeting?
Elizabeth: well, something sort of stood out when we had that first stop. so our first stop was with Susan and outside of Savannah. And we meant to only stay a couple nights with her, but because she was so accommodating and fascinating and she had, she needed some help around her house.
So, me and my partner decided to stay and just work on her house and work on the bus. And she was so a fascinating, and she would always cook for us. And we didn’t know really how to take that because it was our first stop in this lifestyle. We didn’t know we’re taking advantage or what, but she would, in addition to like explaining all of her travel stories, she would say, Well, people along my travels were always so generous to me.
I want to be generous to you and, and you will be able to pay it forward one day. And so that was a big deal for me to just kind of. Put that in my mind, not knowing what this trip was going to be like, but it was also again in contrast to what you hear on the news and what you hear about strangers and things like that, and how close we became in such a small amount of time.
So I that’s something I always kept with me very close and that ended up being a theme throughout our travels.
Leah: I mean, it has to be because a statement like that is so prophetic, you have to like, Almost fulfill it or you a statement like that almost bronze your mind to the possibility that you will also become like one of those well-traveled people that other may be novice travelers will then like, Seek to also become maybe like you viewed Susan as, I don’t know what your travel, so that’s really cool.
And I like that she almost helped you set the stage for the rest of the adventure. So, what else happened along the way?
Elizabeth: So to answer your question about where did we travel? So, because I was working on my schoolwork, I, we stayed. So my school was in Georgia, Metro Atlanta, and then we took off. Then I had to continue writing. And then, I had to come back and defend in the, in Novem, no December. So we stayed on the East coast of the United States and we traveled all the way up to Maine on the coast, which was beautiful.
And then by the time we got to, I mean, it was October and we turned around and we followed the fall. All the way down through like the Shanandoah, like all like kind of inland, we went through Asheville, North Carolina, and then came back. but this was. But along the way, because we were traveling you can’t really high, like maybe in band life, you can hide it and a little bit more, be a little bit more selfie, but in a thirties, four foot long bus that’s painted.
And it says little house in the highway on the back. And there’s, you know, ways for people to find us. We became, pretty comfortable giving tours all the time and just meeting people and always sort of meeting people where they are. And. and that was a theme throughout our, our trip, especially in the early days, going to tiny house shows, inviting people into our home.
And so I think. Susan didn’t really know what she was saying when she first said it or maybe she did, but I didn’t. but that, it was such a theme of this hospitality of meeting people, where they are in the world and in their situations and just being generous, you know, being generous with what we did have, which was time and a new outlook on life, which was to downsize guys and just hit the road.
Leah: So you would go to tiny home shows and bring your bus and people would. Come in and we like to, or your bus and they maybe want to then do Vanlife themselves.
Elizabeth: Yeah. So over the two years that we did this full time together, we had met people at tiny house shows that said, we’re thinking about getting a bus, or we just looked and got a bus. And then we would actually later in our time, like we would see them in their bus and we would be in tiny house shows together.
So it was, it was this amazing sort of. reciprocity of getting to meet the community and then also, you know, growing the community and just trying to be real stewards of that, because there’s also a stigma of people. Like, I mean, not as much now because it is getting more mainstream, but you know, you, you live in a bus and that’s gonna be a topic of conversation and people are going to bring in what they think that, that looks like or put labels on you.
That. they think are true, but that was also another reason why we did it is because we could be the best people to talk, to speak to that subject, you know, to just be like, Hey, this is what we did. This is why we’re doing it. And it’s super fulfilling and you can do it too. And that was always a big part of, of what we wanted our messaging to be.
even when we were not at tiny house shows like officially showing our home, we would always meet people out there, whether it’s at gas stations or on the street, or they drive by and just see us. But one day there was a woman that came in and we were in a parking lot, like a supermarket parking lot in Maryland.
And. I mean, it wasn’t uncommon for people to wander and just kind of peek in and we’d always just let them in. and just kinda, Hey, what, what’s your story? You know, and she came in and she looked around and then we invited her to sit down and she started crying and she said that she had a really tough day at work.
She was a social worker and she. Had thought about doing this. She had watched things on YouTube or on TV, and she said, she’d never actually met anybody that was doing it. And because she was here, even though it was just a random parking lot in Maryland. And we were, had happened to be there that now she knew it was possible because she could meet us and see that we were okay.
And that we were doing it. And that, we could answer a lot of her questions as well.
Leah: That’s a really great impression, too. What do you think can help people kind of overcome their fears and how can people maybe test their agency a little bit more?
Elizabeth: Yes. So I, like I said earlier, I didn’t imagine that this was even a lifestyle that I was going to actually take on until it was happening until we found the bus until we were like, okay. But it’s a process. I think that. When people would meet us on the road, they would look at what we did and they’d see it as a very physical process.
Like, Oh, you took this bus, you physically turned it into something else. And now you’re physically traveling somewhere, but I will tell you that it is like way more psychological of a process. And so I think just getting ready for that. If you can train your mind, if you can be open to something that you didn’t expect, Like you have to sort of imagine what your life is going to look like and then create the life that works for you. You know, because we did have a lot of choices along the way. And so we were able to say like, okay, this is going to work for us.
This is not. but yeah, I definitely think just preparing psychologically. And curating the life that you want to live within that.
we downsized from, and I think this is important that we love. California. So I’m originally from California was going to school out here, went to grad school in Georgia and out there it’s cheaper. So when we first moved out there, be like two years before the bus, we had a night.
Oh, Mike, really kind of like the quote unquote American dream where it’s like. You know, more space than you need the two car garage, all of that, that stuff. And we found that it was almost isolating. Like we didn’t have that many people over there. We didn’t really know our neighbors well, and it wasn’t as fulfilling as.
A lot of people make it out to be, or are maybe it’s just that that’s the benchmark is where you want to be. But once we started downsizing and once we got the bus and that’s when we stopped, we were meeting our neighbors. We became like the focal point of the neighborhood, like, Oh, what are they doing today?
we sold a lot of our stuff on Facebook marketplace. So even though we. Left here to be part of like another community. We didn’t actually feel that sense of community until we started sloughing it off and getting it away from that and getting onto the bus.
Leah: How did you build that community?
Elizabeth: it started just by being really open because it’s such a big icebreaker, like even before we were living on the bus, but you just say that to somebody and all of a sudden they start. Telling you about themselves, because I think what I realized out of this whole trip and this experience is that it wasn’t about us in the bus anymore.
It was about. Other people on how it affected them and being there for them so that they could share that experience in a really authentic way and hearing that and listening to that, we would hear people that all, they wanted a bus because maybe they were in there fifties or sixties, and they wanted to go and do it in the sixties, but their parents wouldn’t let them do it.
And now they want to do it. Or they are just. Telling us that this is the lifestyle they’ve always wanted to live, but they never knew how to do it or, that they just can’t do it. And so it’s being there for people to let it be about them. , has been, just really edgy, like a big education for me in this process.
Leah: I like what you’re saying about how your experience almost became about sharing it with others.
how did little house on the highway come up?
Elizabeth: So this came up really early on as we were, actually. Grinding rust out of the bus I’m in front of our house. And I was thinking, it just occurred to me that we were actually homesteading, that we were building our own house. We had rented a house where we were moving out of, but this was something completely different.
And for me as a writer and as someone that’s always interested in literature and American culture, Of course, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books came into mind, the little house on the Prairie books, and then it was, it just kind of went from there. It was sort of an ode to that, but then of course, a little bit different as we were homesteading in a mobile space.
so overall and little house on the highway, we traveled for two years and went to 47 States and. Traveled about 30,000 miles, but we ended up back on the West coast right before, the pandemic began and we were at a tiny house show in San Diego. And that was sort of, it felt like it was such the golden age because we had so many people, like, we love the community.
We had so many people in our bus that weekend and just really good vibes. It was like a really nice way to be, To have that last memory before everything changed. And so since that happened, we came back to my family’s house in, orange County and stayed here. On the street, which was something we didn’t expect.
It’s always hard to park, especially in California, but we were here for about five months. And within that time, just my priorities really rearranged. My mom is older and she has. lung lung issues and issues, and a lot of health issues though. I know now that it’s, it’s a good time for me to stay here and, but we try to stay up with little hospital highway by doing, we did a T shirt fundraiser for the United way, orange County, and we just try to, you know, stay active with the community as much as we could even.
So that travel was kind of out of the question.
as I mentioned, I’m going through a really big transition in my life and I love that this every pretty much anybody else that’s reached out has been about, Oh, best life couple. And how do you, both of you and dah, dah, dah.
And I felt like this was like a really nice reminder of, of. You know, women’s stories and focusing on women’s stories was really, definitely something that stood out to me. And I want to thank you for that, because it also reminded me that even though we did it through a partnership, that this was also a, solo expense for me as well.
Leah: Thanks for listening to this episode of Wander By Proxy. You can follow Elizabeth’s adventures on Instagram @thelizapproach and @littlehouseonthehwy. Links will be in the show notes. Don’t forget to rate and subscribe to Wander By Proxy and follow on Instagram @wanderbyproxypodcast.