This was originally published on The Medium by Losa Amara Meru, on May 1st, 2020. Part of the article is printed here. Click here for the full story.
Allons! to that which is endless as it was beginningless…
— Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”
The Peace of Wild Things
by Johnny Rosa
The paint was peeling a bit in the corner. The climate in that particular region of the bland foyer changed often. The cold Syracuse winter air rushed in every time a student came through the door. As quickly as the brisk wind arrived the heat from the radiator pushed it away. That’s probably why the paint was peeling. The condensation. It didn’t bother me though. My mind was racing as I traced the corner up the tall walls to the top of the high ceilings then back down to glance at the other students tentatively waiting on the edges of the benches around me.
I’d just left the first vocal audition I’d ever participated in. They’d given it a go too. Now we were waiting to see who was moving on to the next round. My heart was beating much faster than I ever thought it would. I wasn’t even that invested in this whole thing so why should I be so nervous? I didn’t expect to make the cut for any acapella group but it was my freshman year of college and I had decided I’d do anything once. I’ve always been a doer. Don’t get me wrong, I do my fair share of thinking and contemplating, but doing always seems more interesting to me. More engaging. More entertaining. Most of the time I only really think long enough to figure out what to do next. Then my brain is whisked away on a quest to get things done.
It was my first vocal audition ever. It was also my last.
That’s what really drew me to Syracuse University in the first place. It seemed everyone I talked to was doing something. Sometimes they failed, sometimes they succeeded, and sometimes they were spectacularly successful. I’d failed this time but at Syracuse that meant it was time to pick myself up, party a little, and move on to the next thing. It made meeting people really fun, this culture of doing and trying. Every new acquaintance meant a new idea or new project to hear about.
Of course, my college experience wasn’t just foolhardy attempts to find success in extracurricular clubs I’d never tried before. I was a student at SU, after all. I had classes and those classes came with ideas and projects of their own. Some of them I was pretty good at, and some of them felt like running uphill while wearing roller skates in a rainstorm. When it was a class that interested me — engaging perspectives on the world around me, exciting projects that pushed me outside my comfort zone, or something I found myself naturally skilled in — I usually did pretty well in school. I loved being able to major in creative work in college. The challenge of making anything to tell a story or highlight something worth knowing to others has always captured my attention. My favorite classes were the ones that pushed me to write long magazine articles or create engaging videos or one class that tasked me with overhauling the entire website design for a local farmers’ market. The making. The doing. That was the best part. The journey of sharing my perspectives in captivating or beautiful ways drew me in.
At the time I was perfectly satisfied trying any of the new skills my professors assigned to me. One semester I became a historian and an investigator, talking to editors and designers of my favorite magazine and writing about their journey getting things ready for print. Another semester I became a videographer, creating short PSAs that are only watched now alongside friends and hearty laughter at our first foray into film. I didn’t know then how much I’d appreciate the skills I was learning. I couldn’t have imagined all the places they’d bring my friends and me. If there was one thing I could be sure of, even then, it was that whatever adventure lay ahead wasn’t one I’d spend too long thinking over. I’d dive right in. I’d go and do.
It’s dangerous to go (and do) alone, they say. Like the hero from The Legend of Zelda, I didn’t venture out into a wild adventure without help. An old man didn’t give me a sword, but a kind friend gave me plenty of help and direction. I love making but I don’t love deciding what and to make. With every option open to me, I get overwhelmed. I need a guiding light to pull me in the right direction.
Erin lights up any room she enters. Her energy is infectious and it was impossible to miss even the first time I met her. Whether it was in classes at school or hanging out with friends, she always brought an invigorating amount of pep and pizzazz that helped me get excited for the unforeseen possibilities of whatever we were working on at the time. Her ability to identify the coolest thing to do next is still inspiring for me. A doer always in search of things to be done, I know I can always rely on Erin when my own imagination fails me.
College was a huge adventure, but it was not my first, or only, one. I grew up moving all over the world. At two months old my family and I moved to Prague, Czechia for two years. After returning to the States I moved two more times before I was done with sixth grade. With continual change the new norm, the summer camp I returned to every year became the place that felt most like home. I grew up cresting the White Mountains of New Hampshire, swimming in Lake Winnipesaukee, and fully appreciating the outdoors and how little we really need at the end of the day. Camp helped me unlock the confidence to take on whatever challenges I faced.
My friends and mentors pushed me to new places and I loved every second of it. Hiking up and down mountains for a week, living out of a backpack, gleefully looking forward to lunch at the next peak taught me to appreciate everything we get in life. The friendly culture of the trails, backpackers freely handing out advice to novices like me, old veterans cheering on Appalachian Trail through-hikers, all grew on me. By the time I was in college I was working at the summer camp, with the recreation services department at Syracuse, and generally anywhere that paid me to be outside. I had gone from a 15-year-old who didn’t know how to swim to a 20-year-old lifeguard entrusted with the safety of others. Adventure after adventure gave me the skills to survive in the world and college showed me the world was waiting for whatever I chose to do next.
Camp taught me an enjoyable life required little more than food, shelter, and a drive to discover. College equipped me with skills to pay my bills and launch whatever career I wanted. My heart ached to make, create, and do. While I had been growing, my friend Erin had been dreaming up exciting adventures around every corner.
The pieces started falling together quickly.
The startup idea Erin and I put together for the business classes we were minoring in seemed to be working out. My mom was encouraging me to seriously think about my post-college plan. Erin was dreaming about how to take things full-time after graduation. It was all very exciting but I was scared.
I didn’t want my college adventure to end. At school, it seemed every week I discovered something new. New friends, new parties, new places, the campus was always bristling with ideas to learn and things to see. I think Erin had the first idea of how we could succeed after college while not letting go of that constant state of adventure campus provided. To be honest, I loved the idea. Why start our business and settle in one place? If we loved starting new adventures, why not wrap that into the fabric of our lives? We’d run our media company full-time, but not out of an office — out of a Bus.
The biggest mug I’d ever seen sat steaming, the surface of the coffee trembling just below the top edge. The table was a bit wobbly but that wasn’t a big deal. I’d drink the coffee too fast for it to have time to spill. We were busy. We had a new goal: figure out how to start a business out of an old Bus. Sitting across the table from each other, Erin and I contemplated what it would all mean. What kind of Bus? Tour Bus? School Bus? How much would it cost to bring it all together? Where would we go? We had about a year before graduation. It was time to build our future.
Unbeknownst to our souls stuck on the Hill in Syracuse, we weren’t the first folks to try to live out of a Bus. There were many others — entire online forums worth. Different teams had been buying and fixing up Buses, trailers, and VW Vans for years and now they were on-trend. The choose-your-own-adventure hype was perfectly Instagrammable which meant the Buses and vans were only going up in price. We had to find the right solution if we wanted to get on the road. Luckily for me, dreaming up new ideas was Erin’s specialty.
INTRODUCTION: We Got Ourselves A Bus
by Erin Miller
I’m starting with the taco conversation. I like to be super productive with my time. In the summer of 2015, I worked for a startup accelerator in Syracuse, New York. I was the multimedia coordinator, which means I made a shit ton of video content to grow their brand and to document the growth of the companies they invested in over the course of the summer.
That summer I was turning 21, so I wanted to spend my birthday with my family and grab my first (legal) beer with my parents.
Naturally, I hopped on LinkedIn right after I booked my flight so I could see who my connections were in or near my hometown in the Bay Area in California.
I scrolled and looked around until a name caught my eye.
Marcus Baron was in the Bay Area.
Flashback a year earlier to 2014 when I was a sophomore in college and I had found his website when Googling “videographers in Syracuse” because even then I was obsessed with networking. Nothing changes really.
When I reached out to Marcus and his artistic collective, Auxygen Creative, I was invited to their lab in downtown Syracuse inside a building called “The Galleries.” It turned out The Galleries were actually a former shopping mall converted into office spaces. Auxygen Creative bought a former barbershop and made it their office. Their crew used the old jacuzzi room to shower and bunks were set up in a side room to enable 24/7 operations.
There were knick-knacks everywhere. From landscape miniatures to portable battery packs, a laser cutter, CNC mill, 3D printer, and lots of camera equipment. Michael Choi, the videographer at Auxygen Creative, gave me a quick tour around the office before he and his team told me their latest project was in the parking garage.
We grabbed our coats and Michael lit a cigarette as we headed out the back door. It was chilly in the dark, abandoned space. A generator hummed as Marcus pressed a button for an industrial 4K light.
Illuminated in the beam of fluorescent glow was a storage container that had been painted black and lined with fresh sawed hemlock just harvested from an old farm 50 miles north. Michael told me they were building a hydroponics pod: compact farming technology that allowed a cultivator to grow an acre’s worth of crop in a space the size of, well, a 20ft shipping container.
I was amazed.
“This is the future,” said Michael in awe of his own work, as he kicked the container, which echoed in response.
Marcus and Michael gave me a ride home and I sort of just forgot about them.
Fast forward to now, summer 2015. Marcus Baron in the Bay.
I clicked on Marcus’ LinkedIn profile and sent him a message asking to meet up when I got back to the Bay Area the next week.
A few hours later he messaged me back.
“I’m out of town. Michael and Patrick are going to be in San Francisco next Wednesday. Connect with them and they’ll catch you up on everything we’ve been up to.”
A week later I was meeting up with Michael and Patrick in a taco shop in San Francisco.
After some chummy hugs and frankly massive amounts of overpriced tacos, I asked them to catch me up.
“What have you guys been up to?” I needed to know.
Michael and Patrick looked at each other and grinned. For the next hour they explained to me their ventures and projects.
After the squad finished constructing their hydroponics pod in Syracuse, they realized that they wanted to bring it to the headquarters of innovation in the United States: Silicon Valley.
But there was no way they could afford to be there. So they got creative. Marcus found an old 32ft flat-nosed 1991 Bluebird school Bus for sale on Craigslist in Capitan, New Mexico for $5,000. He booked a flight home to buy it and then spent the next two weeks in Santa Fe modifying the Cummins diesel engine and fuel system to run on waste vegetable oil. That was some mad scientist shit that I had not expected.
Marcus drove the Bus back to Syracuse and parked it behind The Galleries. Over the course of a couple months, he and his team moved the contents of their barber shop office into the old school Bus and sold off everything non-essential.
The group turned the interior of the Bus into a living/working space fit for up to six people at a time, equipped with wooden sushi beds that rolled out from walls.
The cool thing about the Auxygen Creative squad was that they were a crew of designers, but comfort had been blatantly neglected. How comfy do you think a 32ft school Bus would be with five dudes crammed inside? They sure made it look cool though.
And the finishing touch: they painted the Bus matte black. With spray paint.
Thus was born the Blackbird Bus. Patrick showed me an article of a SWAT team confronting the black school Bus in the middle of downtown because they thought the waste oil processing system Marcus had built was a giant bomb. Incredible. They shut down streets because of their creation. I was slack jawed at their story.
The squad loaded up their Bus, dealt with the police, and headed west on their veggie oil fueled Bus. Once they finally made it to the West Coast, they parked at the Stanford University campus. All the team had known before the trip was Syracuse University life and working out of a makeshift office in an old hair salon. They found out that they could do the same with two wheels on Stanford’s curbsides so long as they moved at least one block every 72 hours.
Easy. So every 72 hours, they moved one block down the road.
They converted the front of the Bus into a guest suite and listed it on AirBnB. At $100/ night, they were stunned to be booked nearly all the time by the zaniest people.
After a month of this madness, the Blackbird Bus got a knock on the door.
Marcus opened the door to a young, curious Palo Alto resident named Alton who inquired, “What are y’all doing on this Bus?”
The team welcomed him on board and explained their sustainable farming endeavors and their intent to disrupt how people live and get food.
Alton worked for IDEO and said that his friend Tony was into the same kind of stuff: sustainable living and hacking the modern ways of living. Alton then introduced them to the world of Ethereum, a cryptocurrency that hadn’t been released at the time, and the early days of Soylent, the powdered space food.
Alton mentioned a project in old downtown Las Vegas called Llamalopolis that some of his friends had been involved with: a micro village with a whole bunch of tiny houses and airstreams developed by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.
The Blackbird Bus asked for an introduction and they moved their operation off the Stanford campus southeast to Downtown Las Vegas, where they parked their Bus in a tiny home village right off The Strip.
They ended up moving into the village for six months where they met a whole community of people who were gung-ho about sustainable living choices and had also made the big leap to downsize their living style to fit in a space of a mere parking spot. They envisioned miniature living pods that could self-drive from place to place and commune in nomadic villages all across the globe. The project was called Nomad.
“And that’s what we’re up to now!” Patrick and Michael concluded their story and turned to their tacos that were getting cold and mushy.
My jaw dropped to the fucking floor, again.
All this shit happened because of circumstance. Because of ambition. Because of rebellious innovation. A fire lit in my core. Fuck the norm, live the crazy dream. Stick out and the crazy people that want to change the world will gravitate to you. I poked at my tacos.
“That’s amazing, guys. How can I do that with what I’m doing with filmmaking?”
Michael laughed. “Think about it, Erin. With autonomous vehicles, we’ll no longer be restricted by location. We can be anywhere without having to worry about traveling.”
I left that meeting with my eyes opened. I could do anything anywhere and that’s what I was going to do. I was going to take my passions and take them everywhere. I’d have no roots, no home base. The world was my playground.
From that point, I was convinced that if these artistic scoundrels could buy a Bus from the side of the road, convert it into a nomadic science lab, travel across the country and get hooked up with one of the most disruptive startup CEOs in the tech era, and partner with him to build the future, then I could certainly do anything and everything that I could imagine up in my crazy mind.
It would all start with a Bus.
I celebrated my 21st birthday, got my first legal beer with my parents, and then flew back to Syracuse, New York to my part-time job making movies for the startup accelerator with a new ambition boiling in the very core of my being.
I was going to buy a school Bus and build my own Rocketship.
We are homesick most for the places we have never known.
― Carson McCullers
“Your destination will be on the left.”
I craned my neck to get the first look of what exactly we were turning into. Johnny pointed upwards.
“Oh hey look, we must be here!”
We were driving on a valley-ish road, which was definitely cut into the land of upstate New York’s rocky and wooded landscape. The slopes to either side of us were creating a wide “V” and we were driving down the center. I followed Johnny’s point and yelped. We made it.
A row of yellow school Buses lined the top of the left side hilltop and lead to a sign that said “Don Brown Bus Sales.”
I first heard about Don Brown from my friend Joe. The largest single-lot school Bus reseller in the nation lies 2 hours east of Syracuse, New York — convenient for a student with just a few more months left in her career at the University there. I Googled Don Brown to find out more. I found their site online, “buscrazy.net.”
That wasn’t the end of my research. Johnny and I did a shit ton more research on Facebook pages, school Bus conversion blogs (cool kids call their converted rigs “skoolies”), and sketchy Web 1.0 forums where people seemed to know more about diesel engines than the people who made them. I mean, there’s not really a book for buying a school Bus, so we took to the Internet. And the Internet provided.
Our budget was $10,000 which we raised in a month-long Indiegogo campaign. It’s an extremely weird experience as a broke, soon-to-be college grad to be out getting drinks with friends one night and get text messages that we just received a $200 donation while we were sipping whiskey downtown. People strangely believed in what we were trying to do.
Now that money was in Johnny’s bank account (which was more money that either of us had thought about in our entire lives except for how much loan debt we were in) and we were looking for a Bus.
Johnny’s red Kia, aptly named Franco, turned at the sign that read “Don Brown Bus Sales.” Franco purred up the hill and past three rows of yellow school Buses, strangely reminding me of grazing cattle.
“Bus farm! Bus farm!” Johnny and I chanted as we hopped out of the car and zipped up our jackets. It was mid-March, which meant it was still winter in upstate New York. We tucked in our scarves and pulled on our gloves and shuffled toward the portable light brown storage container with a sign that read, “Office.”
The sounds of typing and ringing phones filled the “Office.” We were greeted by a man hanging up a phone.
“Hi there! How can I help you?”
Johnny stepped forward. He had an impeccable strength in first impressions.
“Hello! I’m Johnny, and this is Erin. We’d like to buy a school Bus!”
The nice man hung up the phone and smiled deeply.
“Great! You’ll be talking to Carl, who is just in the other room. He’s just finishing helping a nice fellow here with his family with some final paperwork. They’re going to be converting theirs into a food truck. If you’ll just wait here…”
He motioned to the empty chairs behind us and walked into another room.
Johnny and I remained perched in our chairs looking into the other room to see what would happen next until the door frame was filled by the body of a man.
He resembled the human version of a mole: a round body with tiny eyes magnified by thickly lensed glasses. His sparse goatee framed his wide face and he was wearing a Carhartt beanie. He wore business clothes and a nametag.
“Howdy, I’m Carl.”
Johnny hopped to it again, repeating his seemingly rehearsed introduction.
“Right. We talked over email. I have three school Buses to show you today that will fit what you’re looking for and that are in your price range.” Our heads bobbed in nods as we listened to Carl.
“Let me grab my coat and we’ll take my Jeep to go check out these Buses for you. How does that sound?”
We continued to nod.
Carl led Johnny and I out of the warm “Office” and into the cold, grey outside. We waited as he walked around back to grab his car. With a roar, a black Jeep emblazoned with decals from Call of Duty pulled around the corner.
It stopped next to us and the passenger window rolled down. I climbed in the back seat as Johnny took shotgun and with a three-point turn we headed towards the Bus farm.
Even though the farm was a lot smaller than it seemed, I feel like Johnny and I got to know Carl pretty freaking deeply. He was a surprisingly passionate dude and had some hardcore obsessions with superheroes and rock n roll. He said that his Jeep was his most treasured possession, so he took to selling vehicles for a living. He loved his job because he knew what it was like to love a vehicle and he wanted to help people do the same.
We told him that we had a production company called Out There Productions. We told him that we made promotional videos to get great ideas out there.
He laughed and said,
“Well, that’s a new one.”
Suddenly we rolled to a stop. The first Bus.
We hopped out of Carl’s beloved Jeep and checked out what he picked out for us. It was a white commercial Bus.
“Wait a second,” I said. “I thought we wanted to get a yellow school Bus.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Carl responded. “However, these commercial Buses are super affordable. If you went with one of these, you’d save $2,000 off of your bill for a traditional school Bus.”
That had me intrigued.
Carl pulled out his keys and opened the passenger doors. Johnny and I looked at each other and followed Carl inside.
The commercial Bus wasn’t bad at all. It was the size of a short Bus (10 feet high and 20 feet long) and it was definitely spacious. The seats were in pretty good condition and there was no rust on the belly of the exterior.
PAUSE: Ok, there’s a Bus farm here. But where do these suckers come from? Well check this. According to specific school district contracts, based on how many years a Bus is driven, the vehicle has to be retired after 12 to 18 years of use. That means, no matter the state of the vehicle, once it reaches a certain age, it’s off to Don Brown Bus Sales, buddy. Pretty neat-o right?
Back to the story.
The commercial Bus came out to around $4500, which was a steal for us. I wasn’t sold. There’s something romantic about having a yellow school Bus. I wanted that real school Bus feel, not some knockoff commercial brand. I was willing to spend the big bucks to get a pint-sized tank to house our business for the next year.
Johnny shared my sentiment and we asked for Carl to bring us to the next Bus.
It was a truck-front Bus, which means that the engine of the Bus was similar to a pickup truck, and the back of the Bus was essentially a school Bus. The engine ran on gasoline and there was a crank handle to open the Bus doors from the driver’s seat. Johnny and I took turns opening and closing the doors like yee ole school Bus drivers, until Carl grew slightly impatient with our gratuitous school Bus glee. He saw this shit every day.
We liked the second Bus because it was yellow and classic, but it wasn’t classic enough. It still had that truck front which took away from the authenticity of having a true school Bus. Also, this was a 2014 school Bus, so it was $6500, and that was a little pricey for our budget. We asked Carl to take us to the third Bus.
Back in the Jeep we rumbled to a snowy lot lined with Buses facing each other, like cold cows getting milked. Johnny and I looked into each of the windows as we slowly rolled past each one of them as we waited anxiously for Carl to ease on the brakes. At last, the Jeep slowed and Carl pulled it into park.
“Bus #3. Here we are!”
We looked out the window of the Jeep as it started to snow. Carl nodded at the large boxy school Bus with an “04” painted on the windshield. Johnny and I looked at each other and then jumped out of the Jeep.
It was beautiful. Johnny and I circled the Bus like sharks. We looked at the tires, which were slightly cracked but was nothing to worry about, Carl assured us. It was huge. It was a tank. It was exactly what we were looking for. Carl unlocked the passenger doors which swung open with a hiss. He gave Johnny the ignition key. Johnny jumped into the driver’s seat which bounced with hydraulics. So cool. He put in the key and revved the Bus to life. It purred like a lion. Johnny and I looked at each other and smiled. This was our Bus.
We went over every inch of the Bus with Carl. He showed us what each button did (but of course we forgot because we were so excited). We discussed the fee for having all the chairs removed. We asked questions about rust (which there thankfully wasn’t a lot of) and about what we would need to know when registering the Bus in order to get license plates. Everything seemed like kind of a hassle, but it was what we were willing to do in order to get this Bus into our lives.
We shook hands with Carl and hopped back in his Jeep to go to the “Office” to sign some papers. We gossiped about the next Marvel movie, Ant-Man, that was coming out that summer.
Carl stapled together all of our signed papers and Johnny put down a deposit with a check that he had (I was surprised he had checks, how many 22-year-olds have checks?). Carl said that the Bus would be delivered to Syracuse in a few weeks once all the sales paperwork had been finalized. We gave him the address to the empty parking lot that we had secured before buying the Bus, generously offered to us by a community man named Rick who was opening an artist’s studio space in Downtown Syracuse called the Gear Factory. This was our Bus HQ for the rest of the semester.
Johnny and I walked out of the warm “Office” again and into the brisk wind. We high-fived and yelped until we got cold and then hustled back to Franco.
We got what we came for. We got ourselves a school Bus.
Okay I touched upon it lightly, but the question still stands.
How the FUCK did we get all that money to buy a fucking school Bus?
That’s a grand and great question. Let’s address that.
The last people you’d expect to have a spare $10,000 lying around would be three college students that have five times that amount in student loan debt.
OH HAY. Enter Indiegogo.
Johnny and I decided to do Indiegogo because it’s a crowdfunding platform that allows you to keep any money that you raise whether or not you reach your fundraising goal. It’s not like Kickstarter where all your money is on the line with an all-or-nothing goal.
With encouraging advice from mentors and enthusiastic supporters, we set our fundraising goal to $20,000. I was hesitant to stretch our goal that high without any previous experience asking for money from anyone. But our mentors were insistent that $20,000 was an easy flick of the wrist when writing a check from a big sponsor with deep pockets.
We hoped for a rich sponsor like Outside Magazine to drop us a steaming $20,000 to fully fund our dreams, but that never came. However, the best place to ask for money if you’re trying to start up is within your own personal network that consists of the three F’s: Friends, Family, and Fools.
Those F’s came in clutch.
Through many anxious days of hounding Facebook friends and updating our cover photos of the slowly growing percentage of getting funded, the campaign ended us with $9,560 of our $20,000 goal. Not exactly 50%, but still better than absolutely nothing. This money was more than enough to get us a school Bus.
Some TIPS for crowdfunding:
- Content is everything. Fill that body content and have a dank shareable video. The contents of our crowdfunding campaign included sections titled: WHO we were and WHAT we were doing, HOW we would use the money that we raised, WHY we were doing this, a BACKGROUND on ourselves and accomplishments so people would take us seriously, and a list of our MENTORS and ADVISORS so people know that other people trust us as well.
- Be transparent. Create a pie chart of where all the money raised is going to go. Our chart said that our funds would be split accordingly: 50% to buying a school Bus, 25% to renovation costs, 15% to our emergency fund on the road, and 10% food and water. I mean, yeah that probably changed up as things went on, but it’s good to have a skeletal plan of what you THINK you’re going to do instead of nothing at all. Since we didn’t raise all of the funds we put 90% of the money into purchasing the school Bus and 10% on renovations. It all worked out in the end: Just make sure you let people know what you’re doing with their money so they don’t think you’re stealing from them.
- Create a timeline to show your funders. We ran our crowdfunding campaign in February and March, finished renovations and graduated college in May (whew, thank goodness the latter even happened), and then we hit the road in September. We did pretty well with sticking to our schedule.
- Have some dank perks for people to purchase so they get something out of dropping you some cash. Our featuring perk was a limited edition Out There Productions t-shirt. For $125 we would throw a bonfire party for that specific donor and bring the Bus and beers to that donor. $450 we would throw you a barbecue included wit that beer run on the Bus. For $2,500 we would actually sell why your product was in our company with a professionally-made promotional video. The last perk was the full $10,000 and that would mean we would send a care package at the end of the road trip with a piece of merchandise from every single place that we visited, a description of what it was, and what the experience was attached to that artifact. It was called Out There Productions care package. (Unfortunately nobody got this but our mentor said it would be a really cool perk to add so we added it for kicks.)
- Chill out and know what to expect and when to expect it. Most of your money comes from the launch of your campaign, the middle when you push out emails and reminders to people that things are going on, and the last 24 hours of your campaign when people fucking remember that they need to give before that shit ends. Don’t worry! You’ll get there.
Something that I wish we did was plan out the day by day of what to do during the campaign because some weeks we didn’t have anything planned and that severely affected how much money we were getting. I felt like pushing for press while the campaign was live would’ve been more effective if it had been done before the campaign went live. So you should line up ways for eyeballs to get to your campaign page before you launch that page.
In our eyes, we had completed a successful crowdfunding campaign. With the money in our pockets, it was time to start the school Bus renovations. That’s where the real fun started.
All this madness started with an idea.
I attended the S.I. Newhouse School for Public Communications at Syracuse University. How did I end up there? Usually students go to Syracuse University for the reputable school. I went for two reasons: the unmatchable school spirit, and I actually just liked the school’s color, orange. To be honest, a pretty easy selection process from my end.
ANYWHO, I decided to declare a major in Advertising. I certainly didn’t make that choice because I wanted to work in an ad agency (not about that Mad Men life) or because I was super impressed with the Advertising professors. When I did a school visit, we basically learned that the curriculum culminated together in order to produce a lookbook of ads that you made during your four years at SU in order to apply to jobs at an Agency. Sorry, I wasn’t about to spend hella monies to go to school to make a fancy glossy scrapbook.
I chose to be an Advertising major because there was flexibility within the major to literally do WHATever you wanted to do within Advertising. I am all about helping the underdog. SO, my plan was to take all this industry knowledge and apply it to helping the non-agency brands.
STIR UP A LITTLE INTENSITY INTO THE SMALL BUSINESS WORLD. STIMULATE THAT ECONOMY, BREH.
One of the requirements of majoring in the Communications School is to take a preliminary filmmaking class that requires you to make a fiction and non-fiction video piece. The class is truly the SHEER basics of using camera and sound equipment. I was stoked.
Growing up, my brother and I used to borrow film equipment from our local television station to bring scripts to life that he had written in his spare time. He came up with all the creative ideas and I was the producer. I made it happen. We made several amazing short films, including a piece called “Unfunny” which starred an unfunny girl (played by me) who was apprehended by the government because she kept telling terrible jokes. In the end, she goes through a government-sponsored humor class and the government lets her stay in the States.
The haphazard filmmaking ways of borrowing dated secondhand equipment and spending days in the community television editing studios was the extent of my filmmaking career. Until this class.
I was pleased to have Johnny in this class along with a few other misfit toys within the Newhouse School. We sat next to each other on the first day.
The professor’s name was Corey Takahashi. He was an age-ambiguous Japanese dude who dressed nicely and had a clean way about his appearance. He had an impressive background with credits at/from NPR and Vice News. He was pretty awkward, laughed at poorly constructed jokes, and he was happy that Johnny and I contributed a lot to class. After all, it was his first year teaching. After getting used to the class, Takahashi told us to get our jackets and to follow him outside. He proceeded to take us on top of the biggest hill on campus and told us to look over to the City of Syracuse and everything the light touches.
“Journalism takes place everywhere, not just in your immediate surroundings. Find stories that are off the Hill. Class dismissed.”
Corey disappeared and left the 35 freshmen shivering on top of the hill. A profound yet oddly timed Mufasa moment.
Anywho, this was the professor that brought me to the light with non-fiction storytelling. I realized that I was not bad with a camera, and I understood the structure of video storytelling. My finished projects weren’t super on point, but the lessons and inspiration I took from them were priceless.
During this class I was approached by my entrepreneurial friend Aidan. He had built a new startup and wanted me to film a case study to get funding for his venture.
Armed with my mediocre Canon camcorder from the early 2000s and a shitty tripod, I agreed to help Aidan out in exchange for some pizza and graphic design help on a new logo I was working on for my company. He agreed.
Aidan’s company was called QueueCode, now re-branded to DropSource. He and his team had built a coding program that revolutionized the way mobile apps were created. Usually those suckers take like 8 months to get coded and they’re outsourced to developers in different countries that will work for smaller wages. There are so many people in the process and communication gets lost in translation to create a simple mobile app. Aidan created something that would allow anyone to custom create a mobile app in under 4 hours, no previous coding experience necessary.
I didn’t really understand what this idea was since I didn’t speak coding language, but Aidan said to just show up and we’d film it.
Within four hours I had captured the app’s programming progress demonstrated by a kid who doesn’t code. He exported the mobile app onto his iPhone. And it worked.
Holy SHIT. I was amazed. And I had it on camera.
I put together an edit and sent it to Aidan. He said it was dope.
After the whole situation, Aidan’s graphic designer went through a ton of logos with me but I ended up settling on a sketch that I had lying in my sketchbook to this day.
That logo remains the logo of Out There Productions.
A few months went by and Aidan dropped out of school to pursue DropSource full-time. I e-mailed him to get a testimonial for him on my first project with Out There Productions.
Here’s what he said.
“Simply put, Erin’s team put our company on the map. We raised $1.7M within a few months of the video being released and I can say with 100% certainty that OTP made that possible.”
— Aidan Cunniffe, CEO, DropSource
That was a pretty good proof of concept for me. I decided that what I was making created value for people. So I decided to pursue this full-time.
And on we went.
I was never really into “working for the man.” My first delves into entrepreneurship took place in high school where my brother and I would make homemade comic books (we were inspired by the 90s zine movement in the Bay Area) and sell them for $0.25 to our friends. Our costs were low because we figured out how to make eight-page magazines out of a single sheet of paper.
We also pulled a Captain Underpants move by getting our friends who worked in the library to make free copies for us. It was pure profit. I continued my side hustles as I got older. I used to make massive bags of popcorn (similar to those big monster bags that you get at the farmer’s market). My friends in marching band were always hungry and they liked to mooch off my food. So I decided to capitalize on this opportunity and I would wake up an hour earlier every morning (4:45AM to be exact) so I could pop three or four extra bags of popcorn that I would sell for $2 each. That was a 500% profit margin.
Why did I want to make money?
Well, chores were boring, and food and art make people happy. I made a bunch of money that I saved and used to go to the movies. It always went back to the movies. I made money to go to the movies.
I got into college and lived on the CIE learning community in DellPlain Hall. That stands for Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship. While applying for living arrangements upon my acceptance to Syracuse University, I selected to be part of a community of people who share a passion for creating things. To be honest, the whole ‘Creativity’ bit of the triad caught my eye the most. I didn’t know when I moved in that it was an entrepreneurship-centered learning community. I was fine with that.
As part of the program, I had to take a weekly class that took place in the ground floor of DellPlain Hall to learn about how the brain worked with creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship. One of the activities to get us more acquainted with the entrepreneurship scene on campus was a camping trip with the IDEA Connectors, or masters students that were actively running their own businesses and studying an aspect of entrepreneurship.
The trip was at Oswegatchie Educational Center in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. It was a free, required camping trip, so I went on the golden Bus that took us to this magical ropes course where we were to learn about starting businesses and hopefully find mentors within the group while out in the wilderness.
I thrived on this trip. I got to meet some stellar mentors through the IDEA Connectors and I finally met some people where I could say wow, I want to be like them when I grow up. For the next year, I volunteered my time to the IDEA Connectors as they ran their events on campus. Come sophomore year, I became the youngest IDEA Connector ever.
With the honor of becoming a Connector, I was an integral team member that was expected to assist with running the annual pitch competitions for student entrepreneurs who have the opportunity to win up to $20,000 in seed funding to make their ideas into reality.
As a young and technologically savvy member of the event planning team, I was in charge of the clocks. These clocks were apparently impossible to understand from the comments of my team, but for some reason I was stellar at learning what buttons counted down and set the time and reset. So I taught everyone who was a timekeeper how to keep the clock set and running. I even got to operate my own clock in the Social Entrepreneurship room where I heard a pitch about bringing clean water to places that didn’t have access to the resources.
I enjoyed the pitch, but the judges said that they would understand the idea better if there was a short video at the beginning of her pitch that visualized the whole idea. My attention was piqued. I knew how to make short videos.
I took time in another pitch, this time for a t-shirt company that had crafted a t-shirt that wicked sweat off of perspiring athletes’ bodies. The judges again said that if they saw a video that showed how the product worked and why it was different than competitors, then they’d be more likely to fund the project. Again, in my mind I whispered, “I can do that.”
Lastly I went into a biotech pitch for a gentleman that cultivated mushrooms in his dorm room and wanted to pursue that full time. The judges suggested that he have a website with a video that told his story because it was very captivating and easy to share with investors.
I was moved. Maybe it was selective hearing with my newfound love for visual storytelling, but it seemed like everyone needed a video made for them. This was a need. This was the “find the need” opportunity I had been looking for that my entrepreneurship professors said would occur if you only kept your eyes open.
This was my opportunity. That night I brainstormed the name of my new venture idea. Something that would get great ideas out there.
THAT WAS IT.
Out There Productions.
I was finally applying my tangible skill, filmmaking, to something I was passionate about: people changing the world. These were the modern day inventors and game changers. They were the influencers and inspirations for generations to come. These were the people that would shape culture as we knew it. And they’d get discovered because of me.
We don’t get anywhere in the world without people lifting us up. We can be humble superheroes every day and do our thing and even cure cancer, but it doesn’t mean anything until you can tell your story to an investor or even to your boss and explain why your idea is the best one.
The next step was to get people on my team who were crazy enough to do what I wanted to do. After all, an idea means nothing without execution. I needed a team. And thankfully, I knew exactly who to recruit.
You know the intro to Ace of Cakes?
“After Pastry school I decided to make cakes MY way (GUITAR RIFF). So I packed up my car and hired the most talented people I knew:
(GUITAR RIFF) My friends. (GUITAR RIFF and THEME SONG)”
That was my strategy exactly. But instead of going to pastry school I went to Communications School. And instead of making cakes, I was making movies.
I was a band kid in high school. I was ALL up in the band business, playing tenor saxophone, then switched to trombone (which initially made me cry but then a year into playing it I realized that I loved it more than the tenor sax). I became Assistant Drum major and Trombone Section Leader when I was a junior in high school and then inherited the position as Drum Major as a senior. I was the nerdiest band nerd of all the band nerds. It was my soul blood.
When I headed to college, I wanted to keep band as a core element of my future, but I didn’t join marching band. Marching band was my THING in high school. And I didn’t want to top that. I just wanted to keep making music. Also I heard that Syracuse basketball was decent. So I joined the basketball pep band known lovingly as the Sour Sitrus Society in order to continue making music but also to get into the basketball games for free.
I joined the pep band and connected with my trombone family and the surrounding uncomfortable looking freshmen. Somehow, one of my strange expressions let loose in my excitement of making music with friends.
“Oh my gulay!”
“Wait what did you say?”
I turned around to a hip looking brown girl wearing a baseball hat, a t-shirt that said LA on it. She radiated a chill AF vibe.
“I said, ‘Oh my gulay.’”
Her eyes widened.
“OH SNAP ARE YOU FILIPINO?”
Gulay is a stewed vegetable dish that my Filipino grandma used to make during family gatherings and I never ate it. It has the word “goo” in it. Why would I?
In addition to our half-Filipino upbringing, Losa and I also had the following in common: we both played brass instruments, were from California, were drum majors of our high school marching bands, and studied Communications at SU.
WILD. We were basically twinsies. We shared those good vibes and always made each other laugh. I also found out that Losa was getting her degree in Television, Radio and Film at Newhouse. This was perfect. I was all right at Television, Radio and Film, but Losa was actually studying to be a professional in this. She had to be on my team.
I remember our first collaborative project together that happened at the end of Fall Semester our sophomore year at school. We were approached by a very established non-fiction storyteller named Anthony Orendorff. He was well known on campus for his moving pieces about social struggles and the human condition across the country.
He wanted his next project to be a viral music video to the catchy song by Pharrell called “Happy.” You’ve probably heard it from the credits scene in the movie “Despicable Me.” It’s a song about being happy. Surprise, right?
Anyway, I was approached by Anthony with about ten gigs of footage of people dancing to this song. He needed someone to stitch about five hours of footage into two minutes. He asked if I was up for the task.
With it being finals week, of course it seemed like a good time to start a new project. I obliged.
This was my first contracted project (I say that with a single grain of salt because I was not paid for this project). I asked Losa to join me on board so I could have some professional input on my first job where I had a director with a vision.
In five days we released the video which went viral immediately. The video racked up about 200,000 views in a few days and our director was contacted by Google so that a snippet of the video could be featured in a Google Chromebook advertisement.
It was a success drop into both of our portfolios. And it was a fun project. So much so that we decided to continue working together.
But three’s a party so we decided to add another person on our team.
It is unclear how I met Johnny.
I remember seeing him during Freshman year orientation for the dorms in my specific geographical region at Syracuse University. I lived in a dorm called DellPlain (my friends and I called it “Hell Pain”) and we were grouped with the other dorms around us: Haven, Booth, and Kimmel. He was wearing brightly colored flowy harem pants and held a confidence that made me think he was a Resident Advisor. During the first week of school, I went to visit my pal in Haven. Their next door floormate? It was Johnny!
His floor was an outdoors-themed learning community, so people who had shared interest in nature activities lived near each other. It was a cool crew! Through my friendship with my Haven buddy, I began to see Johnny more and more. Eventually I learned that he was studying Magazine Journalism in the Public Communications School, where I was studying Advertising.
His enthusiastic positivity was truly infectious. I wanted to be surrounded by his energy. He was goofy and hardworking. He had passions that didn’t have to do with educational excellence. I felt like his main goal in life was to be productive and happy. Later he told me that he always wanted to be doing “the coolest thing that can be done in that particular moment,” which is why he decided to jump into the vortex of starting Out There Productions and taking it on tour across the country.
Our Bus had finally arrived. Johnny met the delivery man from Don Brown’s Bus Sales at the empty parking lot at the Gear Factory. Over the next few weeks we took trips down to the Bus to show our friends our purchase. Everyone was stoked that we actually got the Bus. It was kind of a baller move.
We kept our donors updated on the process of the renovations of the Bus. Like the funding of the Bus, we decided to crowdsource construction help from the resources we had at our grasp.
I had several meetings with Architecture and Interior Design professors telling them about our project and asked them if they’d consider remodeling the Bus as a project for their students. As I had these meetings, I stirred a lot of interest, but I was burning a lot of time. We needed to get on the road by May, which meant we needed to start renovations as soon as possible.
We had to: 1. Graduate college and 2. Move out of Syracuse.
Using the power of friendship and the intrigue of the school bus, I brought a group of Interior Design and Architecture students down to the Bus and asked them to design a layout for three people to live and work in the Bus. By the end of the day we had a blueprint.
We sourced materials from leftover wood scraps from the architecture warehouse and whatever tools and supplies we needed we paid for it with the money from the Indiegogo campaign. The thing was, besides Johnny’s minimal construction experience, we didn’t really know how to build anything with nails or wood or a saw.
We did a call to the community for a kind soul willing to donate time to guide a Bus renovation in exchange for video services, food, and good vibes. Naturally, we got the right person to respond to this call.
Enter the honorable Mike G, the king wizard behind the SALT Makerspace in Syracuse and mastermind of most of the bike racks and art installations around the city. His latest project was the Yellow Fellow, a half bicycle, half bar creation that is becoming a more popular activity in emerging cities for young working professionals looking to drink in public and be part of a spectacle as interesting as a mobile powered by drunk pedaling humans.
I mean, I’d watch that for sure.
ANYWAY, Mike made one of those from scratch which gave him more than enough credibility to do a Bus renovation.
Mike is a smallish dude, sort of my size. He kind of looks like a small John Krasinski who plays Jim in “The Office.” Got a picture in your mind? That’s Mike G.
We showed Mike our taped off sections in the Bus that was marked up by our squad of talented and generous architecture friends. We walked back and forth through the Bus and he announced supplies that we would need.
Here’s an email from my correspondence with Mike.
I wanted to follow up and let you know what we’re up to on the school Bus we’re building into a mobile living/working space. We are looking for skill and equipment for the following tasks for our first build on our school Bus:
1. Constructing one wooden bunk bed (includes constructing two wooden beds)
2. Removing interior panels of Bus. (includes unscrewing a bunch of Phillips screws)
3. Installing insulation. (includes measuring, cutting, and installing insulation)
For tools, we need:
2. Driver bits
4. Saw horses
6. Wood glue
8. Electric drill(s)
9. Drill bits
10. A vehicle to transport lumber and insulation from Lowe’s on Erie Blvd.
Naturally, Mike fulfilled all these tasks.
On our first build we were accompanied by enthusiastic community friends who fixed all the windows so they went down all the way, and they removed unwanted padding that was meant for children and not young people living on a Bus.
Mike finalized the layout and we picked up all the materials for the pieces we would be constructing over the next couple of weeks. We secured electricity access from the Gear Factory (we learned later that it was illegal to run an extension cord out of a two story window, run it across a street with moving traffic, and use it to power a shit ton of power tools in a sketchy parking lot), sawhorses from Slick Rick, tools and experience from Mike, and ready access to more hardware if needed from a local store across the street from where we were stationed (I was stoked that they carried lots of gummy snacks there).
We were ready to build.
Johnny and Mike worked on bolting in foundational beams on the walls and the floor. I got to fill the drilling holes and outside bolts with gooey black caulking that would weatherproof the holes we drilled. They also added tracking under the beds so the stuff we stored underneath wouldn’t slide around.
Once the foundational beams were secured, we attached Johnny’s bed on hinges on the inside so it could be lifted for additional storage underneath. Mike bolted in the bunk beds and added L brackets for extra support. I lied down on a dusty wood panel. It was perfect! We accidentally didn’t give the bottom bunk as much head space at the top but HEY it worked. With the beds done, we called the construction day to an end.
Johnny had installed two eye bolts into the school Bus door and bought a really nifty lock that slid through the two eyes and locked in the front. We stuffed all our equipment inside and locked the door for the next build.
For our next construction day, an awesome friend had built us a custom kitchenette based on the dimensions from our blueprint. All we had to do was bolt it into the foundational beams. He also brought over a really nice slat of wood that was the perfect size for the workstation table that would be located right behind the driver’s seat. Mike added some triangle supports for the countertop and we drilled it in.
We swept all the sawdust, tossed all the scrap pieces of wood into the Gear Factory dumpster, and collected all the loose nails and screws. It was all coming together.
Next we needed to paint.
I consulted Marcus Baron for this step. He had spray painted his entire Bus with Rustoleum matte black spray paint.
As cool as that seemed, it sounded like a pain in the ass, dangerous for the common lungs, and wasteful as fuck.
I asked Mike what he thought. He said that I should probably sand the current paint job on the Bus so that whatever I put on top of it would stick. With some research we found that Rustoleum paint was our best bet for paint that could withstand weather and wind. Losa, Johnny and I went off to Lowe’s to purchase an electric sander and paint.
We went with almond brown since it was the closest thing to a chill color like sea foam green. Also it was light enough to not absorb a lot of sunlight but normal enough to not draw a lot of attention to the Bus, while also a good color to not be sketchy and blank. We bought two buckets of almond brown and a bucket of white for the top of the Bus (we wanted to make it look like a white-topped Volkswagen Bus).
With the paint, brushes, rollers, painters tape and pans, we were equipped with everything needed to paint a school Bus. Slick Rick’s parking lot was porous to collect rainwater so we made sure to get drop cloths and painters paper to catch paint droplets and not clog the system. This was also a reason we didn’t go with aerosol paint. LOVE THE ENVIRONMENT, YO.
Before we started painting we had to clean the Bus. It was covered in dust and dirt from years of being driven. Now how the heck would we do this? We couldn’t drive it to a car wash because that was kind of illegal. There was conveniently a fire hydrant on our side of the street. Slick Rick told us to get a fire hydrant wrench from the city water department so we could hook it up to his power washer (‘cos he had one lying around, nice).
Apparently anyone can get a fire hydrant wrench from the city water department.
After signing a few papers and dropping a safety deposit (that I’d get back later, apparently) of $100, we were given a quick tutorial of how to use a fire hydrant wrench before they gave us said wrench and a paper to show policemen if they tried to arrest us.
SO MUCH POWER. We hooked up Slick Rick’s power washer to the hydrant and pulled the water on. It was so fun to spray the dirt off the Bus with a water wand. We got lots of stares from passing cars. WHAT. NEVER SEEN SOME COLLEGE GIRLS WASH A SCHOOL BUS? Dirt and grime and mud got blasted off with the help of the power washer. We cleaned dead bugs from the lights, mirrors, and windows, some that were super caked on there.
After an hour of super spraying the Bus, it was dripping and clean and ready to paint. We let the beast dry for a few days.
Exterior work on the Bus would happen after we were done with the school day. We would finish classes, hitch rides with our friends down to the Gear Factory parking lot, set up music and drop cloths, and paint. I was in charge of sanding and I did so like a badass; smoothing the rough surface resulted in me getting covered in yellow dust like a bee covered in pollen. I used paint thinner to remove the adhesive stickers that marked the Bus logo, make number, and school district name. After a quick once over with paint thinner, the letters would lift easily, leaving no residue.
As I taped borders on the windows, doors and mirrors, our friends rolled paint onto the flat surfaces. It was all coming together.
The process of painting took about five days. Once it was done, it was beautiful. It’s actually illegal to drive a school Bus that is yellow in the state of New York so it needed to be painted before it took to the streets.
During the process of renovating the school Bus, Johnny, Losa, and I were finishing our final semester of our senior year in college. Our days consisted of studying for finals, partying and having a social life, completing projects and capstones, and then going down to the Gear Factory to work on the Bus, the next chapter of our lives.
By some stretch of a miracle, we all made it to graduation. We got our caps and gowns and our parents came into town to watch us walk the stage.
Our names were called, we walked the stage, we shook hands of professors that changed our lives, we had cake and dinner.
Just like the end of the day of duty, we packed our parents into cars and headed down to the Gear Factory to check on the Bus.
There it was. For our parents, it was a scary feat that was coming up in the nearby future. But it was fine because we had each other. Losa’s mom walked around the Bus and said a prayer for our safety. Johnny’s mom got straight to work making measurements of the windows so she could make custom curtains for the Bus (Johnny’s mom ran her own window treatment company). My parents checked the tires for safety.
We had made it to the end of school. We only had a few days to go to get registered, receive temporary plates from the DMV, and to pack the Bus with our belongings before trekking to California.
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the times you spent in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
— Jack Kerouac
CHAPTER EIGHT: The Maiden Voyage ft. the Flamin’ GoGo Gurlz
Losa turned the key on the Bus and it roared to life. A high pitched dinging filled the air.
I held my ears in pain. “AHH what IS that?”
A, my girlfriend at the time, looked at the gas gauge.
“Yo, we’re negative empty. Is that even possible?”
Our friend Gabriela drove me, Losa, and A downtown to the Gear Factory to check out the Bus and help us get it road-ready.
The day before we spent four hours trying to get temporary plates from the DMV and had to go SUPER EARLY to another DMV in a town an hour away so we’d be legal on the road.
WE SURVIVED. IT ALL WORKED OUT.
With the temporary license plate papers taped to the back window, our next obstacle was filling the tank at LEAST to the E line so we could get to the nearest gas station without having to get towed there.
Losa and Gabriela took a car to get a can of diesel from the gas station down the street. We unscrewed the cap to the tank and pushed the yellow spout in. The can clunked against the Bus body.
The yellow spout was two inches from the mouth of the gas tank. It was too short to reach inside the tank and the body of the can was too fat to allow a further reach.
Us four ladies looked at each other. It was time to problem solve.
Gabriela pulled out a water bottle from her car and emptied the contents completely. We poured radioactively green looking diesel into the water bottle and transferred that into the gas tank. This was highly questionable and high risk, but we managed to get the contents of the gas can into the tank using the water bottle four times.
Once we were all fueled up, we rolled to my apartment to move everything out of my yearlong living space. I had already sold my bed to A and downsized a lot of my stuff by donating it to charity. We next went over to Losa’s house where we picked up her and our friend Iara, who would be joining us on the Maiden Voyage. She was a whimsical filmmaker and musician up for the journey and took all the photos and edited the videos of our Voyage.
We piled Balikbayan boxes, paintings, skateboards, and other miscellaneous contents from Losa’s room into the Bus.
A and Iara would be back in Syracuse at the end of the summer, so thankfully we didn’t have THAT much stuff. It was pretty crowded though.
We piled in, cranked up the music from Losa’s bluetooth speakers and hit the road. We rolled down the window and made our way to Amherst, Ohio.
The stops on the Maiden Voyage were loosely based off of friends’ and families’ houses scattered across the middle and midwest of the country. We brought A with us because her families were spread out in the middle flat area that I had never been to. Also because she would help with the driving.
Iara and I didn’t have our driver’s licenses yet. Shame on us. But in our defense, we never really needed to drive in our lives. However it would’ve been useful for the Maiden Voyage.
Here was the plan.
Day 1: Drive to Amherst, Ohio to stay with A’s cousin Rachel and her husband Paul.
Day 2: Drive to Overland Park, Kansas to stay with A’s grandma and her dog Baxter.
Day 3: Drive to Haven, Kansas (A’s hometown) to stay with A’s dad and her little sister.
Day 4: Drive to Aurora, Colorado to stay with Jack Sale, a friend from school and a participant in the Cinema Fraternity that Losa and Iara are a part of, Delta Kappa Alpha.
Day 5: Drive to Las Vegas, Nevada to visit the Strip but also to see Marcus Baron and his squad on the Blackbird Bus.
Day 6: Drive to Los Angeles to visit Matt Pasternak, a friend from school, and to drop off Losa and Iara at Losa’s mom’s house.
Day 7: Drive to Pinole, CA to park the Bus in front of my mom and dad’s house and to stay in my hometown for the summer.
DAY 1: Syracuse, NY to Amherst, OH
Losa took the wheel first.
Losa talks to herself when she drives. Mostly just questions like “Oh, should I do this? Can I make this?” And then reassuring answers to said questions like “I’m gonna do it. Screw it. OH, SHIT, maybe next time I’ll do that.”
It was slightly concerning but I had to go with it because I can’t drive and I needed to get to the other side of the country too.
Losa created a saying to help with her insecurities behind the wheel. This saying is called, “I’m a Bus, no rules!”
Basically we would say that whenever Losa did anything questionable on the road like running a stale yellow light or cutting someone off. The Bus was a tank so there was no room to be stingy with our movements. Everything had to be deliberate. Therefore, we overtook all the normal sized cars by being deliberate and screaming, “I’M A BUS, NO RULES.”
REMINDER: We took this road trip right after finals and an entire month of celebration for graduation. As excited as we were to take this wild adventure across the country, we were wrecked. I knocked out into an exhausted slumber every other hour. I think I slept about 70% of the time on the road. I am also convinced that I cannot stay awake in a moving vehicle. Iara was also not in full health. She was recovering from a juicy cold because even though it was May, it had snowed during our graduation. Typical Syracuse. The unpredictable weather and overexertion at parties that required her to “go hard” really turned in Iara.
We were a sloppy yet Cool Bus. At one of the gas stations we stopped at to fill our tank with $70 of diesel, I popped on the hood to clean the windshield and I glanced at the “School Bus” sign right on the top of the windshield. I hopped down and grabbed the paint thinner from the Bus.
I wiped some bubbly chemicals on the “S” and “H” decals and peeled them off as soon as they started giving way from the glass.
Now it said, “Cool Bus.”
That was more like it.
The enthusiasm was shared up until our itinerary included meeting not only her cousins and grandparents, but also her mom and dad. I asked A if we were moving a little fast. She reassured me that it would be fine and that her family would love me. I nodded with a “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there” attitude.
Now I was at the first stop of our journey, getting to meet her cousins. I took a deep breath.
We put the Bus in park and four people came rushing to the Bus in excitement. We opened the doors and clicked on the dome lights.
“OH MY LANTIS, HELLO THERE!” I love how A talks.
Her cousins, Paul and Rachel just got married and moved to Amherst from Nashville where they were both in the country music scene. They were both very cool looking and I shook both of their hands (even though Rachel insisted on giving me a hug. She and A had texted about me a lot). The other two people were A’s uncle and aunt.
We all hugged and said hi and sorta guessed that we were all cool with each other and we didn’t judge or worry about what we thought about each other.
An unconventional quaint apartment. Rustic feel. Welcoming. It was the first stop of the trip. Seven hours ago we were in Syracuse and here we were in Ohio in a nice home filled with strange salt and pepper shakers and nice smelling candles. They left us some frozen pizzas and soda and said “yo we’re going to bed if you’re gonna stay up.” But nah, we were tired and ready to pass the fuck out to leave at sunrise the next morning.
The sun rose and we were greeted by A’s family, putting their arms on each other’s shoulders like a classic midwestern family waving and saying “buh-bye” as we drove off into the sunrise.
DAY 2: Amherst, OH to Overland Park, KS
A was driving today.
When A drove, I felt like I had to stay awake just to keep her company. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
Halfway there, a loud and obnoxious beeping caused some concern as we climbed hills in the hot summer heat in the middle of the country. The Bus was overheating. We were forced to stop.
We hit the hazard lights and topped out on our speed of 45 miles per hour. Iara and I googled “What to do when your school Bus overheats” while A continued to drive. The engine was right in front of the driver and the heat of the engine pulsated on the driver, which was A, who was sweating a lake.
Upon internet reading, we found out that the Bus would break down if we continued to drive it. So we pulled over in a town called Pocahontas in the middle of Illinois to cool off the Bus and to grab a bite to eat. We pulled the Cool Bus behind a diner and popped in for some food.
More than twelve hours and 790 miles later, we arrived at our destination, Overland Park, Kansas. It was now about 8pm. A’s nana was waiting for us when we got there. She had cooked a pizza for us and stirred together some sweet tea. Nana had a floppy golden retriever that was almost as old as her. His name is Baxter. We took a liking to the old pooch and gave him pats. He waited for us in the bathroom doorway as we got ready for bed.
DAY 3: Overland Park, KS to Haven, KS
Rejuvenated for the road, Losa took the wheel this time around. I was strangely excited to go to Kansas, just because that’s what you think of when you ask yourself, “Oh hey, what’s in the middle of America?” It’s Kansas! It’s that square state we always forget about.
But now we had a destination there.
We said goodbye to Nana and Baxter and hit the road with the rising sun.
The terrain became sparse and open and the roads went in one direction so cruise control became our best friend. A and I coordinated with A’s family for a welcome home barbeque with all of her family. We were about to get some midwest hospitality.
After we pulled over for some gas, Losa asked me if I wanted to drive. OF COURSE I WANTED TO DRIVE.
She pulled over and I took a seat behind the wheel. I had driven a regular civilian car a couple times before but this was a fucking tank. I was driving the Bus! This was the only place Losa felt it was safe for me to have free reign behind the wheel. When in Kansas!
We took a right turn down a dirt road and A told us that her dad’s house was first on the right. There was a nice-looking white car getting worked on in display in the front. A tall, thin man wearing a cowboy hat and holding a beer waved and smiled to us. That had to be A’s dad: a legit real life cowboy.
We hit park on the Bus and jumped out. A ran to hug and kiss her dad and I followed nervously behind her.
“Well, you must be Erin! How you doin’ darlin?” I grinned and held out my hand to shake his.
He grabbed my hand and pulled me into a hug. “None of that now.”
We filed into A’s childhood house.
“I heard someone here was vegetarian?” Iara sniffled and nodded.
“Well we got something here for you.”
On the kitchen table there were enough vegetables for a city of rabbits. We were in the farmland of America.
Steve, the cowboy dad, fired up the grill and chilled in the front yard with A and her uncle and cousins. Losa, Iara, A’s little sister, Isabelle and I enjoyed the air-conditioned house and made fun of A’s little kid photos that adorned the walls. Steve offered us all a Shiner Bock, his favorite beer, and a staple in his household. I obliged to score some points and I also kind of liked the taste.
We herded outside to get some hot food and as soon as we did, an uncovered ATV came roaring down the dirt road. A small man with a red face and a cowboy hat holding a thermos of mystery beverage whooped and jumped off the ATV.
“Well HOWDY DAMN DARLINS, WILL YAH LOOK AT THAT BUS!”
This was Ben, Steve’s best friend and A’s “uncle”. He took a swig of his mystery liquid.
“WHERE’S ANNE MURRAY?”
Anne Murray was Ben’s version of Annemarie which was A’s given name. He gave her a bear hug and a kiss on the cheek.
I gravitated to this other extrovert. I shook his hand.
“Hi! I’m Erin.”
“WELL HULLO THERE DARLIN. HAVE YOU EVEN RIDDEN ONE OF THESE SUCKERS?”
He jabbed his thumb at the ATV.
Ben slapped his hand on my back and put his cowboy hat on my head.
“RALLY UP YOUR LADY TROOPS, WE’RE GOIN’ FOR A SPIN. We’ll be right back, Steve. That apron looks good on you.”
Next thing I knew, I was in the passenger’s seat of the ATV, I think Ben called it a Warthog, and Losa and Iara were in the back seat. The ATV roared in reverse and we were pulling 60 down the dirt road and we were screaming. My face was clenched in half glee half terror.
The Warthog roared for about a mile until a house appeared on the horizon. We slowed down and Ben joked about trying to avoid the ditch that separated his property from the dirt road and was probably the only rain drainage system. Ben pulled the key out of the Warthog.
“SO. What do y’all wanna do while you’re in Kansas?”
Losa, Iara, and I piled out of the ATV.
“Well, I kind of want to chop wood.”
Ben was unphased by Losa’s strange request and for the next hour we split logs in Ben’s front yard.
We eventually went back to A’s house to socialize and eat BBQ amidst the massive amounts of vegetables.
As night time rolled by, Ben invited us all over for drinks and to play ping pong. The festivities lasted all night and the fun was interrupted by a weather report that a big Kansas storm was coming in. Lighting, thunder, hail, the whole works. A and I packed up our things and went upstairs to grab Losa and Iara to go back to A’s house down the street. However when we got upstairs, Iara and Losa were passed out on the couch.
A and I looked at each other and shrugged, then drove back to her place to get a good night’s sleep.
The next morning we were all reunited and we grabbed breakfast at the kitchen that A’s little sister worked at. We all said tearful goodbyes to Ben and Steve and Izzy before hitting the road yet again. This was a long day of travel.
DAY 4: Haven, KS to Aurora, CO
The terrain started getting interesting the further west we went. The flatlands and farmlands transformed into interesting rock formations and red rock cliffs. Whenever we would stop at a gas station, we got into our routine of using the restroom then purchasing red slurpees and hot cheetos. All of the artificial coloring. At one stop, Iara came out of the gas station with a big plastic bag and a smile.
“What’d you get?” I asked.
Iara pulled out three tissue paper lanterns, the ones that you light on fire and watch glide into the night sky and you make a wish and feel all basic and wholesome.
One time we all hopped out of the Bus and a dude that was looking at the Bus with curiosity called out, “Y’all were the last people I expected to jump out of there.”
People thought we were a band and often asked why we were traveling on the Cool Bus. We would just answer, “We’re going to California and we only have six days to do it.”
Usually people block off a couple weeks to travel across the country. Doing it in six days with a massive Bus that topped out at 50 miles per hour was a severe challenge. People raised their eyebrows and laughed and wished us luck. From the amount of times that thing overheated, we needed that luck.
It was a few hours before sunset when we arrived in Aurora. Iara expressed an interest to go hiking so we could launch a lantern and check out the sunset. We were staying the night with one of Losa and Iara’s friends from their Cinema Fraternity, Jack, who lived in a community complex with his mom and his dog. Jack arranged with his pastor that we would park the Bus in the church parking lot overnight and then Jack would pick us up and drive us to the trailhead. Losa taught me how to balance on her Pennyboard while we waited for Jack to pick us up. I had fallen a handful of times before Jack rolled up and piled us and our night’s worth of supplies into his car.
Jack was a cool dude. He was a tallish Samoan guy with curly hair and a toned bod. He had a kind smile and encouraging things to say. He was one of those nice guys that you knew would get your back if you needed him and you could depend on him for giving rides to people that didn’t have cars.
The drive ended up being pretty far to the trailhead and we made it to an overlook of the city from a rocky cliff where teenagers probably came to make out and young urban professionals came to smoke weed. We used the flashlights on our phone to hop over boulders and to step over crevasses until we all sat perched on a protruding rock that looked over the city of Aurora below.
We pulled out a lighter and lit the fuel patch at the bottom of the lantern. As a group we each grabbed a corner of the tissue paper and let the interior fill with warm air. When we felt an upwards tug, we let go of the lantern and watched it float up. It was the brightest star in the sky. Drunk people behind us whooped in encouragement. We all watched the lantern soar higher until it was just as small as the other pinpoints of light in the sky. I squeezed A’s hand. We had made it halfway.
Jack drove us to his home where we met his super nice mom and their lovely little white fluffy dog named Kiki. We all took our spots on the array of couches that were in Jack’s basement and settled in for the night. I was thankful for this hospitality.
In the morning, Jack drove us back to the Bus and we said goodbye to our night time adventure friend. Losa and Iara expressed an interest to go to a dispensary in Colorado since the use of recreational marijuana was legal in the state and we found one that was on our route to our next destination: Las Vegas.
DAY 5: Aurora, CO to Las Vegas, NV
A drove next as we did research about dispensary stuff. Apparently you had to be 21 to enter, and you’d be carded and scanned upon entry. When we got there, 20-year-old A stayed and guarded the Bus while Losa, Iara, and I snagged our IDs and fistfuls of cash (dispensaries only make cash transactions).
We opened the tinted front doors and curiously shuffled in. The friendly dude at the reception desk asked for our IDs which he inspected and scanned. We were now in the registry. Damn. What does that even mean. I guess we couldn’t run for president now.
Once we were all cleared for entry, we pushed open the SECOND set of doors into a well-lit 50 yard long room that had the basic layout of a gift shop or a college bookstore but the stuff that was on sale was only at the front counter, which was where we drifted.
Within the glass encasement counter and lining the walls behind it were jars on jars of the devil’s lettuce, beautifully wrapped conical joints, and countless arrays of paraphernalia.
Losa went straight to asking questions about what was good for the high she seeked. Iara listened on with peaked attention. I mosied around to see what was available.
I don’t consider myself a regular consumer of marijuana. Sure I hit the J every once in a while with my roommate or at parties. But honestly, it makes me a little anxious.
The first time I consumed any type of marijuana was in a pot cookie my junior year in high school. My brother, Connor and I both had half of the cookie right before band practice. I had no idea why that would be a good idea. We both proceeded through the two hour practice with bloodshot eyes and mild reactions to things that usually sent us spinning into laughter. I leaned on my trombone and tried to keep my balance. The entire football field was tilted on a 45-degree angle and I was slipping. Apparently our band director went up to Connor with a fat grin on his face and crossed his arms while sticking his nose in Connor’s face and saying mockingly, “What’s wrong Connor? You don’t look very good.”
That ruined snickerdoodles for me. I can’t have one without the phantom taste of weed floating in the back of my mind.
The second time I consumed copious amounts of marijuana was my freshman year in college. My friend Shae brought over two joints to split between a group of friends. We left the dorms and walked to the park across the street. The number one rule at Syracuse University was to never go into Thornden Park at night. Yet there I was, breaking the number one rule, and smoking a joint on top of it.
This was my first time smoking so I had no idea how it worked. I took a huge drag off the joint and sucked it in my lungs and held my breath. The smoke tickled my lungs and I went into a hacking rage for about 3 minutes. I coughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. Tears and saliva poured out of me. I coughed so hard I almost yacked. I regained my composure, wiped my slimy residues off my face and continued to drag the joint the wrong way.
After the joints were finished and I was red in the face from coughing so much, my roommate at the time suggested that we go get some food at the nighttime food place for dorm students, Kimmel Hall. We all mildly jeered in agreement and in a group we walked towards Kimmel. As we walked, I glanced over to Hikari. She buried her face under her scarf with only her bloodshot eyes peering over the top.
When she reappeared, she had transformed into Hello Kitty, the Japanese cartoon character, body and all. She waddled down the street and smiled. I cracked up and once again tears rolled down my face.
As I wiped my tears, the world tilted on its axis and I lost my balance and stumbled into Shae. This was when I started to get worried.
“Guys, I can’t be outside right now. I need to go inside.”
We went back to the dorms and upstairs to me and Hikari’s room on the 4th floor of DellPlain Hall. Hikari went for my laptop and she tuned into Adventure Time and watched the colors flash across the screen as they whispered and giggled to each other. I felt all the blood drain from my face, hands, and feet and I felt like my heart was slowing to a stop. Shae brought me over to my bed and laid me down.
“You okay buddy?” Shae had sobered up.
I began to breathe heavily and fast to make sure my heart was still working. I squirmed on my bed.
Shae sat with me and reassured me that even though I couldn’t feel my arms or legs I was going to be alright.
“You’re doing just fine, E. I’ve seen people freak out a lot more than you.”
Shae squeezed my hand and kept talking to me which made me feel a little bit better until I couldn’t feel her squeezing my hand anymore. I was losing feeling in my hands and feet. My frightened eyes looked up at Shae. In what I thought was a last surge of adrenaline I sat up in a gasp.
“Guys. My heart is stopping. We need to call the cops.”
This sobered pretty much everyone up, including Hikari who stayed seated but turned her head in my direction.
Shae squeezed my hand and nodded at me.
“Ok, pal. We’re not gonna do that but we’re just gonna hang out and chat and talk it all out, ok?”
After that wave of panic I finally started to come down from this intense high. Sensing that Shae handled the situation, Hikari sank back into Adventure Time, and Shae stayed with me until I passed out into a pitch black, dreamless sleep.
DAY 6: Las Vegas, NV to Los Angeles, CA
DAY 7: Los Angeles, CA to Pinole, CA
This all seems like kind of a dream, doesn’t it? Three dynamic kids meeting and joining forces in order to do some supremely badass adventure? Is this Marvel?
It’s all about finding the right people to be honest. These folks were my friends but they were also something more. They had skills that could compliment mine. I was hard headed and stubborn and impatient. Johnny had that patience and thoroughness that I felt like I didn’t have time for. Losa had the IDGAF mindset and made me feel a little bit better about taking breaks and time for myself. She expressed the importance of self-knowledge and reflection towards me.
My team is amazing. I heard that it’s better to have an A plus team and a B plus idea. That’s fine with me. I wanted to build something with people I believe in. And honestly let’s be real. ANYBODY can make videos. Anybody can travel across the country in a Bus and make videos about it.
Literally anything is possible with anyone. But what is your differentiating factor?
Our differentiating factor was the people on our team.
Never in my life could I have thought of a group of three that was more complementary than Johnny, Losa and I. We had the right amount of similarities, but also the right amount of differences. It kept things interesting and spicy between us.
Flashback to the fateful taco conversation with the Blackbird boys in San Francisco. They had a cool story. I wanted to have a cool story, too. If I see something cool that someone’s doing (being the drum major of a marching band, visiting Ivy League Schools over the summer, studying abroad), I want to copy them…but do everything my way (which in my eyes, is better).
The Blackbird guys planted a seed of embodying a dream and carrying it out even with all the bumps and bruises. One of my strong beliefs is in the integrity of “showing up.” You’re defined by your actions, not your words. So when I saw other people actively doing things and getting out there to test a dream, it inspired me to DO THE THING and get out there to do it too.
What did we prove on the Bus? We learned that we could live sustainably. We redefined essentials. Johnny, Losa, and I each had two plastic containers for our personal belongings. When we were out of electricity on our mobile battery or when the Wi-Fi cut out, we simply read books. We learned that we could belong anywhere thanks to the kindness of people. If you’re open-minded and willing to contribute to a relationship, people are more than happy to welcome you into their home for a meal or use their hot water. We learned that nomadic tiny living is possible, and that many people may turn to it in the future. We learned to be open to future possibilities, inventions, ideas, and lifestyles, and to adapt to those around you (all while influencing others with your own personal mojo).
It’s wild how people can influence your life with a single conversation. It can spark something big.
So just run with it.
One of my favorite quotes about adventure is strangely a newspaper advertisement from Ernest Shackleton looking for men to join him on a journey to the north pole. This is what it said:
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.
We were doing something kind of normal in a not normal kind of way. We combined our love of filmmaking, telling stories, traveling, and meeting people all into this Bus concept. Who knew what would go right? Or what would go wrong?
Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.
― Wendell Berry, “A Place on Earth”
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