‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Literary America mourned January’s death of Pulitzer-winner Mary Oliver by repeating the much celebrated line from her 1992 poem, “The Summer Day.”
Jen Reinmuth-Birch’s tribute will be broadly shared — as a slogan painted on the back of her bus.
Not just any bus.
She and husband Norm Birch and 16-year-old twin sons Jack and Michael will be heading throughout the Western states later this spring in a converted Naselle school bus.
And they need no prompting to label it, “the adventure of a lifetime.”
Ashlin Cadinha from Mobile West is busy putting the finishing touches on an elaborate conversion project at his custom shop in Seaview.
Its a Peninsula example of a national phenomenon for likeminded people who call themselves “skoolies.” They buy and convert school buses into traveling classrooms, linking up online to share “how-to” tips and pitfalls.
“There’s a whole culture in America of people taking school buses and living or camping,” said Reinmuth-Birch. “There’s Facebook groups. It’s a huge movement.”
This year’s itinerary features Colorado, Sandpoint, Idaho, Yellowstone Park and Disneyland. East Coast locales and battlefield sites are on tap the following year, in part reflecting son Jack’s passion for military history.
The couple has been married for five years. Their lifestyle celebrates simplicity. Norm Birch calls it a “statement of sustainability and family unity.”
At their northern Long Beach home, they grow their own vegetables and eat eggs from naturally raised chickens. “We threw the TV out and we turned the lawn into a garden,” he said.
Reinmuth-Birch homeschools her sons. “We just made a decision we could educate them. It was a personal choice — it worked best for us. One is gifted and talented academically and other is autistic. It would not work for everybody, but it works for us.”
Their adventure dovetails nicely.
Norm Birch works as inventory manager for a company distributing beef throughout the country. The job can be accomplished anywhere there is reliable wi-fi.
Reinmuth-Birch has just completed her graduate studies in nutritional biochemistry at Maryland University of Integrative Health and is soon to attend medical school at the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland to become a doctor of naturopathic medicine.
Birch said the family weighed these factors and the timing for the boys.
“We said, ‘let’s find a way to take a family adventure of a lifetime. but do it without compromising on her education and my business experience.’ We went to Naselle. I looked at the bus. It was well-maintained and we had the idea.”
Beginning this fall, Reinmuth-Birch will set up an apartment in Portland while studying. With her sons nearing the end phase of their high schooling, two trips would work well this year and next.
“Knowing that I am going to be going to school and the boys going to be out of the house, we wanted to have as much adventure and togetherness,” she said.
The vehicle is a 2001 Thomas company’s “Saf-T-Liner,” said Karl Smith, transportation supervisor at the Naselle-Grays River School District.
The 66-passenger bus served the district on routes and field trips for 13 years. He said school buses are carefully maintained on a depreciation cycle until their value on paper is zero.
At that point, districts have a choice. “We can surplus it or keep in the fleet and continue to use it. But there’s a cost to keeping too many, so we put it out to bid.”
The Birches happily paid $5,000, although they concede the total cost of the improvements will be considerably more.
On learning of the family’s plans, Smith was delighted. “It sounds quite amazing,” he said. “I think they are going to get a lot of use out of that bus — we took a lot of care with it.”
Cadinha began by checking over the bus, which had 180,000 miles on it, removing the seats and discussing designs for what would replace them once the interior was an empty shell. Room for privacy, with comfortable beds — the brothers chose bunk-style, which helped with space — and a properly functioning bathroom were essential.
Touring the incomplete shell, Reinmouth-Birch crinkled her face as only a mother can when she pointed out the inevitable large space for the refrigerator. “Teenage boys!”
Norm Birch said their original thinking was to have various trades perform the work, but they worried over the timetable. They were delighted to discover Mobile West could do it all.
“The guy is a genius,” said Reinmuth-Birch, describing how Cadinha painted the exterior, installed water and propane tanks, and helped them custom the interior. Other work involved upgrading the diesel engine and installing new tinted windows.
Cadinha has been doing this work for about a decade; in recent years, he has displayed his successes at RV shows in Tacoma and elsewhere.
“They are all a challenge, everybody has a different concept of what they want,” he said. “That’s the biggest challenge — there’s no ‘cookie-cutter’ applications. You need a good foundation.”
He is guarded about mentioning any changes he suggested, although the Birches commend him for the diplomatic manner in which he discouraged impractical ideas.
“We were impressed how he listens to everything,” said Reinmuth-Birch. Her husband added, “He is a true artist.”
A kitchen with adequate counter space, air conditioning in the front and back, and a backing-up camera were among refinements.
Cadinha said that is all part of trying to meet the customer’s dreams while being grounded in reality.
“We spend weeks trying to find out what they want,” he said. “There’s a science to what we do: weight, egress and safety and industry standards.”
Such conversions require safety approvals from the Washington State Patrol and the Department of Transportation. “It is a big lethal weapon if it’s not properly maintained,” Birch said.
Another discovery was that some states ban private owners from “impersonating” school buses because they benefit from certain traffic rules. For “skoolies,” that means removing the hinged “stop” sign and safety bar; some jurisdictions even ban the distinctive yellow, which prompted the Birches to choose white as a “blank canvas” for their bus name, Oliver’s poem and adornments they may add.
“We get to experience life and we wanted a bus that told that story,” Birch said. “I could have bought a motor home. This is built like a tank — it’s built to protect people inside.”
The vehicle will even have a seat earmarked for the family cat Libby (named for Elizabeth Blackwell, the nation’s first female doctor).
‘See the country’
Fittingly, in Eugene, the city connected with counterculture author Ken Kesey whose cross-country bus “Furthur” set out 55 years ago, they will hold a bus christening party with relatives before heading east.
“Everyone in our family thought we were crazy,” said Reinmuth-Birch. “Now our family think it’s wonderful.”
The nation will then become their classroom.
“We wanted to have the kids see the country where we live,” said Reinmuth-Birch. “I have been around the world, but seen so little of the United States. There’s this whole section between New York and Oregon that’s an amorphous blob.”
The pace will be deliberate. “You just wouldn’t see it any other way.”