Elizabeth Hensley and her partner of eight years, Richard Tilford, have been traveling fulltime in their 1996 Thomas International skoolie, dubbed Little House on the HWY, since August 1. They are currently making their way from Florida to Maryland for the Mid-Atlantic Tiny House Expo.
“We paid $2,500 for it in Bradenton, Florida,” said Tilford from a Dunkin Donuts in New Bern, North Carolina, where the couple had stopped for coffee. “We like coffee,” he added with a chuckle.
“It had 247,000 miles, but it’s got a good engine and the mechanic said it had at least a couple hundred thousand miles left in it,” added Hensley. “We found it on Craigslist. It was a single-owner vehicle and had been kept up by the private academy that owned it. It took us about four months to get it ready for the road.”
The couple gave notice to their landlord in May, and then it was a mad rush to get the skoolie ready for occupancy before they had to move out of their home.
“We didn’t finish everything on the bus before it was time to hit the road,” said Hensley. “It has no power or plumbing, but it’s very comfortable. One nice thing is we always have our own bed. And we never leave anything at home because we bring it with us.”
“We have Planet Fitness black card memberships and we tend to head to one of their 24-hour gyms, work out and take showers. Sometimes we park there and get some sleep, too. We also sleep at Wal-Marts and other places. So far, we haven’t had to pay for a campsite,” said Hensley. “We were only asked to leave once. It was at one in the morning and a security officer told us we had to move on. We were in a mall parking lot. He had a job to do. We respected that.”
“The biggest problem we’ve had has been the heat. It’s been uncomfortable sleeping some nights,” said Hensley. “We are big on going to libraries to charge our stuff and cool down.”
“Sleeping without AC can be tough. I sometimes lay down on a towel and sleep with no covers and sweat all night,” said Tilford.
“We’re driving north partly to see the leaves change and to cool off. It’s already cooler in North Carolina than it was in Florida,” added Hensley.
“The key to parking somewhere is going inside and sharing our story with people and getting them on our side,” said Hensley. “We are blown away with how supportive people have been for the most part.”
Hensley and Tilford freelance and work at odd jobs to pay for their lifestyle.
“I recently wrote an article for Snowbirds and RV Travelers Magazine,” said Hensley.
“And I buy and sell coins on eBay. Also, I just removed the carpet from an RV and installed wood floors. The owner gave us the seats from the RV which were nice, and they had seatbelts, which we were glad about,” said Tilford.
“Fuel is the major cost. Four hours of driving costs $100. Food is our second-highest cost,” said Tilford. “We raised some money from the things we sold. We both sold our cars. And I sold three motorcycles before we left.”
“Going slower saves money. Sixty-five MPH in this bus isn’t very good. It vibrates a lot and is noisy at that speed. We like to keep it at 50 or slower for a smoother ride and to save fuel. So, we use back roads when we can,” said Tilford.
“We also don’t have any kids or pets, so that helps make this possible. You really find out how much you don’t need to live when you’re on the road. We don’t need a house and two cars,” said Hensley.
Richard and Elizabeth met in Hawaii when they were both working on a cruise ship for Norwegian Cruise Lines. Elizabeth was from California originally. Richard was from Florida. They have lived in California, Florida and Georgia as a couple.
“When I worked in Big Sur, I saw people traveling in vans and other things, and it got me interested in the lifestyle,” said Tilford. “We’ve seen other parts of the world – we’ve traveled to Australia, China and Costa Rica. Now we want to see America. A road trip is the way to do it and a skoolie is a better option for us. I drove a school bus for two years, so I already knew how to drive one and I have a license to drive one.”
The couple is grateful to have the resources and flexibility to travel where they are drawn by weather, events and other circumstances.
“We headed to North Carolina because we thought we would try to help out following Hurricane Florence. We’ve met some people who lost everything. Some people said they were fine. We drove up through Charleston yesterday and found out about the Maryland tiny house expo from a woman we met there,” recalled Hensley.
“We’re glad we’re going to be part of this expo. This will be our first tiny house event, and we hope to learn more about tiny living,” said Tilford.
“Liz was editor-in-chief of Otter Realm, the campus newspaper at Cal State Monterey Bay,” said Tilford. “She’s a good writer.”
“I am working on my master’s thesis in American Studies online at Kennesaw State University. I hope to graduate in December. My background is in journalism and as an oral historian. I want to write to who we are as a people. We are at a crossroads as a county and I want to help document our identity, and not just what’s shown on TV – as individuals instead of the generalizations of identity politics,” explained Hensley. “It’s hard for people to talk to each other these days. We’re all lumped into one side or the other. Conversations are important.”
“The bus helps start a lot of conversations,” said Hensley. “We are very open with people. We like sharing details about our lifestyle with others. There is a lot of curiosity and enthusiasm. You get a lot of stories from people who say, ‘if I was your age I would do it.’”
“I was insuring the bus as a commercial vehicle, as a sole proprietorship. You need a business name. It really felt like homesteading. And it reminded me of the Laurel Ingles Wilder books. They were homesteading,” said Hensley.
“We’re on the Oregon Trail and this is our wagon,” said Tilford.
“And so it was,” said Hensley. “Little House on the HWY.”