Blythe, Arizona - A dreadlocked man in a purple bra and beige sweatpants crawled out of a tent, pulling a black jacket over his shoulders. I was in the middle of taking a dab from the plywood shelf drilled into the door of a neighbor’s van. He had just introduced himself as Dan, or Matt. There were actually two guys there, in addition to the one wearing a bra, and I presumed one of them owned the van. I had met them moments ago when they saw me emerging from my bus next door and offered me a hit of their marijuana extract. It was just the friendly thing to do. It was about 8:30 in the morning, after all, and we had all just driven in the night before and were meeting for the first time.
This was day one of Skooliepalooza: an informal gathering of people with tiny homes or RVs, nearly all of them made from old school buses. Some were shorties like mine—shortbusses, the kind you see hauling the special needs kids when you’re in elementary through high school. Those make the best ones, in my opinion, since they fit in a standard parking spot (though barely) and in most states, the Departments of Motor Vehicles designates them as cars.
But I digress. We were out here in our buses (and some in vans and tents, even a few old repurposed ambulances). And we were celebrating. Some people were cracking beers and taking shots. Many looked like they live like this every day. They were unwashed, and probably looked unwashed even immediately after a shower—but most of them probably hadn’t had a shower. Most of us didn’t have shower hook ups in our buses. And I did wonder if some of these folks were full-time off-the-system existers: homeless but living in buses, just sort of existing and finding a way without formal jobs or steady paychecks of any kind. Matt and Dan, my dab-friendly neighbors, told me they’d come from Slab City—so that says something. A lot of off-the-system existers there. Basically nothing but, as I understand.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I would soon meet a lot of people on the other end of the spectrum.
People who made living on a bus seem…well, glamorous, for lack of a better term. Pretty girls. Pretty girls with careers. A traveling nurse with traveling nurse friends, also living in buses. A therapist who does all her appointments over video. A research professor working remotely. A salesperson. A small business owner driving to all the retailers in her territory and living in her sprinter along the way.
I met them walking around looking at other buses, at drum circles over camp fires, at sound baths and yoga in the circle between our caravan of busses. Maybe my bar for glamour is low, but any pretty girl living in a motorhome makes the lifestyle seem not just possible to me, but downright acceptable, if not entirely optimal.
I looked out on the desert. Just brown rocks as far as I could see. Mountains on the horizon, the silhouettes of a few hundred homemade mobile homes scattering across it in all directions. I wondered what was in store.
I’d come at the invitation of the dude who built the roof deck on my bus. He came the year before. He told me he was bringing weed and mushrooms and that I should do likewise. So I’d bagged some up, threw them in the bus, secured my store with employees for a few days, grabbed my dog and driven the 5 hours out to the Arizona/California onto public land for this unsanctioned, unpermitted, unorganized happening.
What would happen? I had no idea.
Some notes, days 1-3:
Walk around premises. Loose dogs. Huge variety of vehicles and people. Some appear very well-to-do, with professional-quality, beautiful custom vehicles. People who must be professionals in the skoolie rebuild industry. Youtubers. Musicians with skoolies they use as touring vehicles. And there are people who looked like meth heads, living in vehicles stuffed by a hoarder. Kind of scary to look at the roughest of the lot and think: that’s not that far away.
Skooliepalooza Day 4
I woke up to wind blowing against the bus windows, so blustery it rocked my bed. It made me grateful for those windows sealing out the elements while allowing in some warm morning sunshine through the curtains.
My dog was at my feet, balled up beneath the blankets like a living, breathing heater covered in soft warm fur. He snored lightly, like a sound machine used for lulling people into sleep.
I had to piss. I got up and used a bottle by the sink. The floor felt cold against my socks. I never wear socks, but it was that chilly. I lit the stove, boiled a kettle of water, made coffee. Rolled a blunt. Lit it. Grabbed a mug with a lid, my yoga mat. Opened the bus door. Let the dog out.
Other dogs ran over. Mutts of all breeds. Some look like labradors, retrievers, bulldogs. All from other buses, campers, and tents. My dog is a pitbull. I let him do his thing, call him back into the bus. Then I’m off to yoga.
The desert wasteland is strewn with vehicles, nearly all of them mobile homes of some sort, and about half or more repurposed out of old school buses. Then there are ambulances, not for paramedics or any First Aid, but repurposed into peoples’ motorhomes. I walked past all this, through these makeshift “streets” of what has become sort of a city.
At the major intersection where the road in meets three diverging paths is a hand-drawn cardboard sign and map, along with a weeklong calendar of “events.” Anyone can write in what they want, assign themselves a number or a symbol, and then add that number or symbol to the map.
I was looking for 10am yoga. I was about 5 minutes late, smoking my blunt and carrying my yoga mat and coffee. I located the spot on the map and walked there. But no one was there. The buses were all still dark and all still quiet and I dared not knock at random strangers buses knowing they were sleeping or enjoying their privacy.
I took it that yoga must’ve been cancelled, as well as all other morning outdoor activities, due to the wind. Wind and dust roared across my face. The only people out and stirring were the tent people, and they were only stirring to huddle together against the wind.
The tent people were those without motorhomes who were sleeping in tents. These tents were bending heavily in the wind. Some were no longer standing at all. I’d talked to some of the tent people, enough to know that many of them had come over for the week from Slab City, an abandoned planned city in California that had been taken over decades back by a mostly homeless population who chose to live their without any local laws or local government.
The bus people were of a largely different situation. We had motorhomes we lived in either part or full-time. Essentially we were all homeowners—mobile-home owners, anyway—and this windstorm showed off the differences not only in resources, but in personal economies. Even at Skooliepalooza, there were the haves and the have-nots.
The day before, I met a very attractive young woman named Mikayla. Pretty girls make me a nervous in an excited way only when they seem like they might be smart and successful and someone I might actually couple well with. But Mikayla seemed young, like in her mid-twenties still. Maybe I talk myself out of things.
I met Mikayla at the map sign in the middle of “town,” both walking our dogs so we could see the activities board. She had a career as a traveling nurse, working at hospitals in different cities for months at a time. This sounded wonderful. I wanted to see her again. She’d offered me a tour of her bus, and I felt this inferred that she would also like to see mine—a common thing at an event like this, I suppose. Where else can you meet other people who live in school buses?
Over our nightly campfires, a topic of discussion was the fact that most of us who live in these buses do so without paying rent for parking or camping, and that means we must constantly be moving, every few days or weeks at least. At many places, bus-dwellers must stay discreet and can’t mingle or gather with friends (if any are staying nearby) because groups would attract attention and draw the ire of law enforcement.
So here we were at Skooliepalooza 2023, the second such annual gathering. A free unpermitted event out on Bureau of Land Management public land where somehow there are no Parks Services camping fees, no Rangers or law enforcement or even any laws to enforce. We were outside a town called Blythe, which was basically just some truck stops and a Best Western, all just a couple miles down the access road.
With no yoga to start my day, I walked back through the streets of school buses and rvs, all silent except for the hum of some of their heaters. Occasional tent people scurried across the rocks through the bitter wind. This must be what the end of the world is gonna look like, I thought to myself. It was a couple years away, probably, the apocalypse or World War III.
Back in my bus I climbed. It was warm and comfortable. I turned on some Dizzy Gillespie 1950s Kerouac style jazz and made more coffee and rolled another blunt, then took out my MacBook and started writing. I had to decide whether, or when, to go back to El Porto. I guess I really didn’t need to. I had everything I needed with me and could work right from the desert city.
Later that day, I drove four and a half hours back to the beach, in part to go surfing, in part to attend a stand-up comedy show with some neighbors, and in part to tend to my seven-day-a-week responsibilities leading teams of employees to attract and service customers. After three days of surfing between doing those other things, I drove back to Skooliepalooza. I arrived again at 3am (since it’s just on the Mountain side of the Time Zone map). It was Thursday morning.
Skooliepalooza Day 8
Driving down the unpaved road into the deserted arid landscape, I could see the light strips of hundreds of buses at rest and hear the low roar of music, loud enough to pulse through the desert from an no apparent direction. The sky was dark as pitch, contrasting with the bright stars you can only see when the nearest metropolis is four hours away.
I found my way back to where I was parked before. The bus homes were all dark, their occupants asleep for the night. I let the dog out and then walked to the source of the music, which was still pumping, but somehow almost silent in the background of the night.
A girl was singing karaoke with a couple of girl and guy friends. A guy came out of the bus next door. We exchanged pleasantries as if it were three thirty in the afternoon and not three thirty in the morning. He was looking for adapter cord so he and his girlfriend could run a projector screen off his generator to watch movie in his bus. Friendly folks. Nice to see what was going on. I walked back to my bus and went to bed.
The next day I moved my bus into a circle of 39 other motorhomes. They had a campfire at the center and a stage setup on one end, protruding into the circle off of someone’s bus, which also produced the power for professional sound and light equipment. This was one of about a dozen or more such wagon circles strewn about this section of desert. Some didn’t have stages. Some had fewer buses. Some had more lights. Some had people selling honey and organic herbs off their buses. Some people had yoga class areas set up and even a massage table.
Skooliepalooza Day 10
“If we turn to cannibalism, you’ll be eaten first because you’ll taste like apples,” I heard a girl say. She was two buses away drinking coffee on the lift-gate of a neighbor I’d met. A researcher for Stanford University, I think he’d said. Brian, I think his name was.
I couldn’t see him at the moment because I was hanging from TRX straps off a pull-up bar welded to the back of my bus, my feet up against the back bumper of my rig, running back and forth like spider-man. I could only imagine Brian sitting in the kitchen of his bus eating an apple.
Brian has long, dark, curly hair, a short beard, a pleasant demeanor. He’s in a wheelchair for one reason or another. His rig is adapted for his disability. He built it himself. He lives on the road, out in the woods, out in the desert, off a dirt road by the beach, wherever. Just like basically everybody.
A few buses to the other side of me, music bumped from the door of a 30 ft schoolbus. A van or two over, Bri, a new friend we’d made yesterday, was dancing and selling coffee. She had a French press setup behind her open rear doors.
Yesterday we’d piled into my buddy Danny’s sprinter and bathed in a river, Brian, Brent, Danny, Jenny, Bri, and me. Jenny was an attractive Asian girl of about 30. She owned her own health beverage company and lived out of a Sprinter that looked like something out of Home and Garden magazine or Southern Living. How someone could be so glamorous and live in a van redefined my view of what’s possible.
I was on my roof watching it all go down, the morning sun still climbing up the sky. It was the final day. Not even the final night, but the final day, after the final night. I was leaving. Most of my friends were too.
I would have been gone already had I not stepped out to say hi to my friend getting some coffee from Bri. We walked off in search of free pancakes when someone had passed us that word. At the pancake bus we met more nice people, and ran into other friends we’d met before, including a girl, Katelyn (21), and her brother (10). They’d been living on the road together for the last two weeks, which they made sound like a fun holiday of sorts. It was so bizarre on the one hand, this girl and her little brother, but they were so warm and such comfortable, happy people that nothing about it looked the least bit irresponsible.
I met Katelyn during a morning soundbath meditation workshop and journaling session. We both stuck around and joined a handful of others for what ended up being 2 or 3 hours of acroyoga instruction.
I was an absolute beginner, as were some others, and am still happy thinking about having gained my first bits of experience. Her brother I met on the dance floor. He was doing handsprings and dancing his ass off for a huge crowd. Katelyn told me he was a great salesman, selling gems, crystals, and rocks with her at fairs and festivals. I could see that and wondered who the kid would grow up to be.
There was also this young guy, Pigeon, a train-hopper and hitch-hiker who couldn’t have been much older than 21 or 22. He was a good sort and a happy positive spirit I’d known since my first night there when he’d wandered up to our fire. I’d met people like him when I was about his age and traveling by motorcycle, sleeping outside, meeting many a tramp. A tramp is the wild and wandering distant but near cousin of the typical homeless person. A tramp or road dog chooses that life while young through hitch-hiking or train-hopping if they’re really hardcore and have the good (or bad) fortune of having someone bring them up in the train-hopping game, stowing away on commercial freight train across the forgotten iron-horse highway of the US.
I’d met guys like Pigeon before, even been friends of the moment as he and I were now, but I’ve never kept in touch with any of them to know what happens to them when they get into their late twenties, thirties, and beyond. I look around for Pigeon now to get a phone number or something from him. Even if he’s on social media, I am not. I look around but don’t see him.
Bri’s packing up her coffee stand. The sun is getting higher. I don’t want to leave but I am looking forward to surfing, and to taking the energy and inspiration I picked up from here and applying it back to my home life, in my surf shop, and in my bus. I’m thinking I’ll make a home of my bus and every beach parking lot in the state of California, all the ones within an hour or so drive from my shop especially, mainly just to commune with other surf bus dwellers. I figure there must be many of them. They probably aren’t at Skooliepalooza because 1) this is a desert, not an ocean, and 2) they might not have even heard this event.
So now I guess I am on a mission of sorts to find these people. It feels sort of like I am seeking out members of a secret community—a community so secret many of its members don’t know they are a part of it.
For next year’s Skooliepalooza, I think I will set up my big thick astroturf mats around the back and side of my bus, with an awning, and arrange a library slash free book exchange underneath. I’ll offer books about all my favorite subjects: surfing, philosophy, cannabis, mushrooms, health, nutrition, exercise, along with the most inspiring and thought-provoking fiction and nonfiction. I’ll set up my chess and scrabble boards on an adjacent table with a couple of chairs. In this way, I’ll be able to enjoy all my favorite things and welcome others to share them. People will be able to work out on my pull-up bar, on my TRX straps and my astroturf mat, and they’ll be able to exercise their minds in the shade before or afterward. I will give out my newspaper, the HighTides Journal, with all my articles about my recent travel and the inspiration I’ve found, as well as advertisements for my businesses. Readers will know to order from my apps for mail delivery of surf wear, apparel, surfboards, wetsuits, surf souvenirs, and surf hardware, as well as books and gifts specifically for cannabis and mushroom enthusiasts. And I’ll carry a few clothes to sell on the spot to those who are interested, and a few other inventory items to satisfy demand.
I’m sure I’ll meet the most interesting people and contribute great value to the most appreciative audience. I can have my bongo drum and my guitars out with me, too, in case anyone wants to strike up a song.
Woodrow Pack Landfair is an adventurer, author, entrepreneur, and the Adventure Correspondent for HighTides Journal. He is the author of the semi-autobiographical novel Land Of The Free (Harbinger Book Group, 2014), about an indefinite 48 state motorcycle journey he began in 2006, and about the personal challenges fought years afterward while pursuing a life of artistic and professional freedom on the road. Three years after the book's publication, in 2017, Pack purchased El Porto Surf Shop and moved to El Porto, California to surf and write every day. Pack is a graduate of the University of Texas where he studied English Literature on full academic scholarship from the United States Navy ROTC, and was the only walk-on member of the 2005 College World Series Champion Texas Longhorn baseball team - among several soon-to-be major leaguers. At Texas, Pack earned Midshipman of the Month, Student-Athlete of the Month, Big 12 Commissioner's Honor Roll, served on the Student-Athlete Advisory Council, made three trips to the College World Series, and was twice voted Teammate Of The Year by his teammates. Pack is currently pursuing a personal goal to surf every coastal nation on planet Earth - as a means of seeing the world, learning different philosophies, and making friends across the globe. The first 19 countries of that journey are the subject of Pack's next book Here To Surf Vol. 1 in bookstores December 2024.