Who are you and what is your backstory?
My name is Holly Williams and I am a nomadic artist & printmaker currently living on the Colorado Plateau in a 28 foot Skoolie.
I grew up on a small farm on what used to be the sleepy little North Fork of Long Island, NY. When people hear Long Island they imagine Nassau County, full of strip malls and busy streets without any trees, basically NYC. The North Fork is still pretty though, it’s all small agriculture and summer towns with traditional small town values. On an Island.
Some people leave, but the majority never do. My entire family lives there. All of the friends I grew up with are still there. I’m the only person on my entire dad’s side of the family to move away, aside from going to college.
"last winter I was driving home from upstate New York. While crossing a major bridge in NYC in busy traffic, the bearing that held my driveshaft in place snapped....."
When I started describing my bus life plans to people, typical reactions (outside of my close friends) went “No you’re not,” or they thought I was crazy or wasn’t capable of doing it or that I had no idea what I was talking about. But when Wander (my bus) was finished, people loved it, they thought it was the coolest thing ever, and you could tell some were pretty jealous. I’d go into stores and complete strangers would come up to me and go, “You’re the girl with the bus!” which startled me at first. A lot!
The time period before I bought the bus should have been a really good time in my life, but it was clouded by depression. Relatively fresh out of college, I was saving money and had a good living situation, things were stable. Only, I had invested too much of my trust and sense of self worth in the wrong people, and it bit me, hard. Additionally, the rural end of the island I'd lived on for most of my life was rapidly filling up with rental properties and strip malls. My favorite frog ponds were turning into parking lots before my eyes.
Fortunately, I lived with my best friend. We even worked together at a high end leather design studio. Amanda and I pretty much spent all of our time together, our friends joked that we were a married couple. She was my biggest supporter and advocate for the bus on the North Fork, the only person who acted like what I was doing wasn’t crazy. As soon as we can, I’m super excited to show her some place that isn’t New York!
Growing up on a farm, playing in the woods, spending time on the waters of the North Fork gave me a deep appreciation and understanding of nature which has completely driven my artistic focus. Almost all my work draws from personal experience or environmental circumstances. And now, with my bus, I don’t need to be plugged into a grid, and I can go take my home wherever I want to explore.
My perfect day could be so many different things depending on the day...but I wish I could take a handful of my closest friends and go camping. We’ve never been able to all go camping together, and now everyone’s schedules and lives don’t allow for it and it’s nearly impossible to get everyone together. We would all go to Yellowstone. It’s some place we always talked about going. I had a crazy obsession with it when i was a kid, and I made it my mission to convince my parents to take me there. It blew my mind because it was my first real experience I had out West, away from Long Island. It’s definitely what sparked my love for this part of the country and drive for wanting to come out here.
Take us to the moment you decided to begin your buslife?
I was 24 when I bought an old school bus and turned it into a traveling off grid home and art studio. The time in my life when I decided to make this change wasn’t a pleasant one. Certain events had led me to become an angry, hurt, bitter person. I knew that I had to make a big change. So I came up with a plan to leave New York and focus on what truly makes me happy, which is creating art. Walt Whitman has always inspired me, and his words helped bolster my resolve; “From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines.”
That plan was deciding to build a skoolie. I was always traveling in my car, so building a home on wheels seemed to make sense for me. In 2018 I took my first steps into the unknown and bought a 2001 GMC school bus which I named Wander and I then began my journey of building a new life for myself, in the form of a faithful nomadic domicile that would cross the country with me while I focused on myself and my art. In the summer of 2019 and $15,000 later I moved into Wander full time and haven’t looked back since.
I’ll never forget when I saw the bus on ebay and thought “that’s the one.” But it was all the way in Queens, and it felt like the world was against me when I went to see it. The traffic was terrible, the weather was bad, I wound up in a car accident, but when I finally walked through the front doors of the bus I just knew that this was it, this was the bus that would be my home!
Tell us about the advantages to the Bus lifestyle?
The biggest gift that came from building and living in Wander would be self sufficiency. If something breaks I know how to fix it, and if I don’t know, I learn. I taught myself electricity, plumbing, carpentry and basic mechanical repair. Sometimes you have to get really creative with it, but in the end it feels so rewarding to be self reliant.
For example, last winter I was driving home from upstate New York. While crossing a major bridge in NYC in busy traffic, the bearing that held my driveshaft in place snapped. My heart just sank. I knew something big had broken; the entire bus seized up and started shaking. You could feel it grind on the bottom of the bus, and I didn’t know what was wrong or if I’d even be able to stop the bus! I was basically dead on the side of this very busy bridge. It was going to cost me an insane amount of money to get towed the remaining 95 miles.
"My biggest advice for anyone looking to live the van or skoolie lifestyle is to do your research, and do a lot of it! It’s very easy to become enamored with this lifestyle, especially with the way it’s portrayed on social media."
But after some troubleshooting, I realized what had come loose, and used a common ratchet strap to snug the bearing back in place! Then came a terrifying crawl home down the Long Island Expressway at 15mph, praying I wouldn’t get pulled over. Much to my surprise it actually worked. After that, I felt like I was in complete control of what was happening in my life, that the bus and I could get out of any situation! I second guess myself a lot less and this was actually good for my anxiety, you can’t be anxious or nervous when driving a 24 thousand pound vehicle!
There are plenty of other benefits. I don’t feel tethered, I have a choice of where I want to go and be, and if I don’t like somewhere I can just leave. And the community of tiny living people is incredible. I brought Wander to the big Massachusetts Tiny House Festival, and I was overwhelmed with how excited people were about Wander, people waiting in an hour long line just to see the inside of my bus and ask me questions. There was a girl, a young artist in college who wanted to do the same thing, and every spec, everything I told her she wrote down. And the skoolie/van/tiny house community is amazingly welcoming and supportive! I stay in contact with a lot of them.
Tell us about the biggest challenges and downsides to the Bus lifestyle?
It was a huge adjustment at first; especially as a printmaker downsizing was not easy for me. I suddenly became very limited with the space I had to store delicate, expensive, flammable art materials!
But the biggest adjustment was living off solar and having limited water. I had to learn how to budget everything I was doing in gallons and amp hours. But now that I’m used to it I have found it to be quite rewarding.
Another tricky thing about traveling in a skoolie is finding someplace to park. You simply cannot stealth camp in a 28ft green bus with solar panels and a chimney. Whenever I’m traveling there is a lot of time and effort put into planning parking spots; you always have to be prepared for them to not work out.
One night I had to drive an exhausting extra 150 miles through Texas due to rest areas being closed. I was so burnt out, we had been driving all day at that point, and we were driving through the flat empty black of Texas, there was nothing! It was so relieving to finally stop, that night definitely made me miss having somewhere guaranteed that I could live!
"I do plan to keep focusing on my artwork and pursuing my dream of being a full time artist. I feel very blessed that I have been given this unforeseen opportunity to just focus on my artwork and become a better artist."
After the Massachusetts festival, I was traveling with another bus and a van and we were supposed to camp on a lake. Lo and behold, in our way was a bridge with a 10,000lb limit (I’m way over that). We debated camping in the day-use parking lot, decided against it, then piled in our friend’s van to find a place for the night. We looked down side roads, dirt roads for places we could tuck away, but then we found a small farm.
It took some time to come up with a dialogue and figure out how we were gonna ask to stay on this total stranger's property! Thankfully, they said yes, so we circled the wagons in their farm's gravel parking lot and settled in for one of the best nights bus-camping I've had in a long time. You always have to be ready for the unexpected.
How do you find a sense of community when you’re always moving? How do you maintain and build relationships on the road?
I am no longer traveling alone, my partner moved in with me last November. He is a river guide and seasoned nomad who had been living out of an Explorer. It was a huge adjustment for me, sharing such an intimate space with another human, but I have found traveling to be more rewarding with a built-in adventure buddy. It’s nice to get to experience this with someone. We relocated to Moab Utah this spring.
I do my best to stay in contact with my friends and family back home in NY and I actually started mailing them letters and postcards. I’ve found it to be way more fun than emailing. But if I ever need to talk they are just a phone call away. I definitely miss them but nothing brings a smile to my face like seeing mail from them when I go to the post office.
How do you support yourself financially?
My partner and I both had jobs with OARS' (a river trip company) Moab branch for the majority of the year before COVID hit. He's a trip leader, and I had a warehouse job, but now I am unemployed due to covid-19, so I have begun fully supporting myself off my artwork. I’ve been doing freelance contracting and doing commissions of fellow skoolie and van lifers’ vehicles, along with other side projects. I’ve recently built a chicken coop and drawn someone’s cat being abducted by a UFO.
Recently I began selling my work online on my portfolio website Pinebarrenpress.com along with launching a patreon where I post my daily art progress along with behind the scene sneak peeks into being a nomadic creator. My patrons receive access to behind the scenes sneak peeks, exclusive artwork, stickers, & pins made especially for them! Plus, each month they get to vote on a theme for their artwork rewards. It’s been an interesting progression so far, but I’m very thankful for it. I always wanted to be a full-time artist.
What is your one piece of advice for people who want to do what you do?
My biggest advice for anyone looking to live the van or skoolie lifestyle is to do your research, and do a lot of it! It’s very easy to become enamored with this lifestyle, especially with the way it’s portrayed on social media. Connect with as many people who live this lifestyle as you can, and ask them about their experiences. I try to be as honest about it as possible on my instagram @busgoblin where I regularly post about my experience with bus life. I’ve heard a couple stories of people who go through all the work building their van just to hate the lifestyle or have it not be what they expected.
Set a budget, then write a list of everything you would want in your build and see if it’s plausible. Before you start building, tape out your floor plan first! Walk around in it to make sure you like it, sometimes things work on paper that don’t work in real life. Moving into a vehicle is a big commitment, just make sure it’s right for you first. It’s not all free camping and roses! Be ready to make sacrifices, and face uncertainty on a daily basis.
What have been the most influential and helpful books, podcasts, blogs, websites or other resources?
In terms of sources for building, I learned almost everything via google and YouTube. When I was deep in the building stages if I wasn’t physically working on the bus, I was watching some YouTube video about building one. I looked at every damn video on YouTube about busses! That said, Navigation Nowhere has some good resources. But it's up to you to find an individual best at addressing your problems in your style. Every build is different!
I’m not lying when I say I googled my way through this build. It’s also good to have someone to double check with. Before I did anything like plumbing or electrical work I ran my plans with my father who had a wealth of information about the subject.
If I found I was getting stuck or flustered with a project I would walk away from it for a day or two and come back with a clear head. For example I really wanted a keyless entry in my side door, which I thought was going to be easy. But there were so many factors I wasn’t prepared for such as an odd door thickness and dealing with the original bus locking mechanism. It took me a month to figure it out and get it installed.
What does the future look like?
To be honest I have no idea where my future is headed, I plan on staying in Moab through the fall. Who knows where we will travel next! Our rough plan is to hopefully spend most of the winter somewhere mild if not warm, maybe in California or down on the border.
I do plan to keep focusing on my artwork and pursuing my dream of being a full time artist. I feel very blessed that I have been given this unforeseen opportunity to just focus on my artwork and become a better artist.
Is there anything that you need that you can’t find or anything you are seeking help with?
I think the thing I am seeking most, beyond a decent bagel (they don’t exist outside of NY), is a community to share my work with, to connect with other creatives or nomadic artists. Finding your place in the art world is hard, and Covid-19 has drastically impacted my ability to meet and connect with like-minded people out here in Moab. It hit just after we showed up. I’m always excited when new friends, opportunities, and projects come my way.
Rapid fire questions
What are the top 3 Bus essentials that you couldn’t live without?
A solid backpack you can bring everywhere with you, my stovetop since I love cooking and finally, my built in desk/art space (it’s my favorite place).
Top 3 favorite places you’ve visited?
Palo Duro state park in Texas, Burgdorf Hot Springs in Idaho, and Bisti/ De-Na-Zin in New Mexico
Where are you now?
How long do you usually stay in one place?
That really depends. I really like spending large chunks of time in places. For example I spent a few months living in the mountains in upstate NY and I’ll be in Moab till at least the fall most likely. But when we are traveling it’s usually a few days to a week.
When did you first start Buslife?
I moved into Wander in June of 2019
Are you full-time or part-time Bus-living?
I am living full time
How many weeks have you spent in the Bus in the last 12 months?
About 45 weeks. I’m just short of a year
What kind of vehicle/rv/trailer/setup do you have?
2001 gmc blue bird school bus
Some Bus Specs:
- around 120 Sq ft
- 500 amp hour sealed AGM battery bank
- 520 watts of solar
- 75 gallons of fresh water
- 50 gallon grey water tank
- 3.1 cubic-ft mini fridge
- Dometic Atwood Stainless Steel Drop-In 3-Burner Cooktop
- Full sized residential sink
- pantry & kitchen storage
- 86 in of countertop space
- Bathroom with shower & Natures Head composting toilet
- Full size mattress/ sleeping chamber
- Large artist desk complete with overhead bookshelf
- 110v & 12v System
- Many storage cabinets
Where can we go to keep up with you and your adventures?
Online store and Portfolio: pinebarrenpress.com