Couple turning school bus into home

Mark Davis, Powell Tribune photos

POWELL — With the whir of power tools bouncing off the neighboring peaks, a Wapiti couple is transforming a school bus from transportation for kids into the recreational vehicle of their dreams.

For many travelers, Eirik and Valerie Swensrud’s small cabin in the Wapiti Valley is a bucket list destination. Just over the hill, tens of thousands of vehicles — including many opulent RVs — stream to and from Yellowstone National Park; the couple only has to drive about 30 minutes to get to the East Gate and their yard offers million dollar views. But for the Swensruds and their numerous pets, converting the hearty vehicle offers a chance to load up and hit the road to satisfy their travel bugs and visit other beautiful destinations.

With their two dogs weighing in at a combined 260-plus pounds, their pet turkey, named Spaghetti, and other assorted “fur babies,” nothing but a large domicile on wheels would do. First they tried a van — also a transformation — but soon realized nothing less than a 36-footer would fill their needs.

“We wanted the comfort of being able to spread out,” Valerie said.

The hundreds of hours needed to transform the Bluebird brand bus will give them a sense of satisfaction that only builders know, but the real reason for the many months of labor is money.

“We can’t afford a $100,000 rig. And those are the cheap ones,” Eirik explained.

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

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

However, an RV from a manufacturer with enough room for a master suite — complete with a bath, kitchen and plenty of living space for the crew — is cost prohibitive for most folks. 

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

Class B RVs are a little bigger, with about twice as much living space as a van and prices ranging from $100,000 to more than a quarter million dollars, depending on the manufacturer.

Class A RVs (the size of a bus) are the largest, ranging from $200,000 to more than a million dollars. Some of the nicest Class A buses even come equipped with garages for a sports car and expandable second floors.

The Marchi Mobile EleMMent Palazzo Superior is the most expensive RV in the world at $3 million. The interior includes a huge kitchen, king-sized bed in the private master suite complete with a rainfall shower, wide-screen TVs, and an expandable rooftop deck. The Furrion Elysium is basically a posh penthouse apartment with the addition of a rooftop hot tub and helicopter pad.

The Swensrud’s budget is around $10,000, including the price of the vehicle. Eirik, who is now all but retired, spent his career as both an auto mechanic and a facility maintenance director. His experience gives him the skills needed to accomplish mechanical repairs, plumbing, electrical wiring and connections and cabinet making. It also takes an active imagination and teamwork.

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

The recent dramatic increase in building supplies didn’t help in keeping the total cost down. The Swensruds got creative, recycling lumber from other projects and looking for materials that looked nice and could do the job, but weren’t necessarily intended for the interior. One example is the corrugated metal used for the walls in the shower. Typically deployed as siding or roofing for exteriors, the metal is waterproof and has that popular “distressed” look. 

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

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’re not sure what it will look like yet, but it will be beautiful,” Valerie said.

“Anything but yellow,” Eirik quipped.

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

“They get most of the good ones 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 came from a northern location, the bus has extra insulation and double-paned windows. It saved the family the time and money it would have cost to do it themselves. Additionally, they are planning to add a ceiling that looks like antique tin tiles but is made out of insulating foam. 

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

The bus also came with a Caterpillar turbocharged diesel engine. “It’s basically a small semi,” he said.

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

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

At about 6 feet tall, Eirik can stand up straight in the bus. It wasn’t the case in the van.

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

They could’ve added a pop-up to the roof of the van, but it would cost more than $5,000 for a kit, he said. Height doesn’t matter to Valerie. At about 5’3”, she doesn’t need a lot of headroom. What mattered to her was the space for everyone to be comfortable — including Murphy, the 160-pound Newfoundland, and Tippie, the three-legged Saint Bernard.

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

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

The stereo in the bus sounds rich, but bluegrass was the theme for the workday Sunday. The Swensruds are planning to name their recycled RV “Puddles,” after their recently deceased pet duck.

“She was a great duck,” Eirik said.

“She was the best duck,” Valerie replied.

They have a way with animals and most are rescued from bad situations. They used to have two domestic turkeys, but one was a little ornery. Spaghetti is the perfect watch turkey, Valerie said, repeatedly gobbling loudly as human or animal intruders close in on the cabin. Grizzly bears are frequent visitors in the Wapiti area and the warning gives the couple time to gather the troops.

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

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

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

“There’s people from all walks of life looking for this kind of space and not wanting to break the bank — all walks of life — from people that have tons of money to people that are dirt poor,” Eirik said. “And I tell you what, the majority are people that I want to hang out with, because they’re real.”

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