MCGAHEYSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Spinning in a circle, arms outstretched, your fingertips may easily brush against each corner of the Waldrops’ kitchen. The long and narrow living room is barely wider, but the driver’s seat up front at least offers additional seating.
Living in a retired bus comes at the cost of downsizing to tiny rooms and a toilet that cost $925, but with calling a confined space home also comes limitless freedom.
Autonomy is a modern-day forbidden fruit. Whether pining for the freedom to explore faraway places or comfortably live within one’s means, notions of living liberated from the brunt of financial strain are desires confined to idyllic daydreams for most people. But not for the Waldrops.
Growing up on an Elkton farm and taking a solo cross country trip that enabled him to live out of his truck for nine months, Kyle Waldrop said he grew accustomed to minimalist living.
“From traveling and road-tripping for climbing and living out of the back of my truck, it just kind of evolved from there,” he said.
When Kyle Waldrop began watching YouTube videos on school buses being transformed into tiny homes, referred to as skoolies, his partner, Sarah, was not as quickly convinced that the housing option was appealing.
“I said no," Sarah Waldrop said. "Then, we saw 20 more (videos), and I said OK. It’s a way for us to live very cheaply and travel.”
Taking to Craigslist, the Waldrops found their future residence, a 1994 Blue Bird bus, for $2,800 from a seller in Danville in March 2017 with their hearts set on transforming the boxy, outdated vehicle into their perfect tiny home.
Before its second life as a home, the bus spent its earlier years supposedly driven by Big John, who scrawled his name on the bottom of the rearview mirror, transporting employees around a DuPont plant in North Carolina.
Aside from hiring someone to do the plumbing and insulation, all work in the bus was done entirely by friends and family. The construction took over a year, but by July 1, 2018, the Waldrops were moved into their new home. Everything in the skoolie has a story, from the ceiling made of reclaimed, knotted wood floors donated by Sarah Waldrop’s parents to the kitchen counters designed and built by a friend.
“We’ll be sitting here on the couch with our TV table watching Netflix on the computer, and I think ‘Wow, we made this space ourselves,’” Sarah Waldrop said. “I still don’t believe it, like it blows my mind.”
Parked in the backyard of Kyle Waldrop’s childhood friend’s home, the couple pay $200 to access utilities, and the bus receives power from a 50-amp strip, but the couple hope to one day install solar panels. In total, Sarah Waldrop said the couple have put nearly $20,000 into the skoolie, but nothing beats the feeling of living in a home they built.
At the front of the skoolie, a white board still lists all the plans and projects the couple have yet to take on, but a much smaller list written in permanent marker on the wall serves as a reminder of their original list of completed chores.
Kyle Waldrop said that by living in a skoolie, the couple have harnessed the freedom to travel and go off the grid, securing the autonomy others longingly crave as their reality.
“Feeling like my things don’t own me and because I live within my means, I can afford to go and do the things I want to do when I want to do them, generally speaking,” Kyle Waldrop said.
Named Luly, after a kindly, welcoming woman the couple met while staying in Mexico, the bus even has an Instagram account, @ourlulybus, which has nearly 2,000 followers. Since April 2017, the Waldrops have documented their adventure with the bus online, from ripping out the interior to its first coat of paint until the floor plans took life off scraps of paper and became a furnished, livable space.
Outside of the bus and their day jobs, the Waldrops have cultivated a community within The Warehouse, a private rock climbing gym the couple set up in downtown Harrisonburg while working on the bus.
Kyle and Sarah Waldrop met through rock climbing and maintained their steadfast passion for the recreation by climbing on walls installed inside a barn Kyle Waldrop’s parents owned. When his parents announced in February 2018 that they were moving, the couple were pushed to finish their bus and find a new place to climb before the summer.
“We built the bus, built The Warehouse and planned the wedding all in one year,” Sarah Waldrop said. “Our relationship is super strong because we got through that.”
Not having failed them before, Sarah and Kyle Waldrop once more took to Craigslist to find the old warehouse. Sarah Waldrop said the space has a varied history, previously serving as a feedbag repair place, a sand bag factory in World War II and more recently an online antique business.
Inside, The Warehouse serves primarily as a private climbing gym for friends, but it’s also a studio space, workshop, forge — practically an adult clubhouse.
When the Waldrops first moved into The Warehouse, the ceilings sagged and the roof visibly begged for repair.
Three years later, the space is lit up with strings of colored lights and walls are plastered with Sharpie graffiti from friends. Sarah Waldrop’s oil paintings hang along the sides near her studio space across from a library with everything from Plato to children’s literature to animal encyclopedias.
James Madison University senior Liana Jackley-Angulo met the Waldrops through climbing her freshman year and climbed at the Elkton barn before transitioning to The Warehouse. When the couple received news they had to move, Jackley-Angulo helped build the bus and prepare The Warehouse: sanding, staining, measuring, sawing, cleaning and painting.
She said The Warehouse is a home away from home for the climbers there, who have grown together as a second family.
“Kyle and Sarah have a way of bringing people together with the energy they have," she said. "They’ve definitely provided an environment where I feel comfortable expressing myself. The Warehouse isn’t just a place we climb at, it’s a creative area.”
Sean Maguire is the gym’s head route setter and hold-maker who also uses the space to forge. He described Sarah and Kyle as the “mom and dad” of the mismatched, makeshift gym family and said the private world they have carved for themselves is much bigger than the two of them.
“That is kind of my place to get away and get out of the house," Maguire said. “Whether that be me getting to go climb or me making holds in the workshop or me going and blacksmithing. It gives me a place to have a creative outlet and stress relief.”
Kyle Waldrop said living out of the bus and operating the private climbing space have worked because he and his partner have a harmonious understanding of each other with similar spirits that prioritize freedom above all.
“She’s my person, you know? We love each other," he said. "We love very similar things and have similar thought processes and we work well together and complement each other. Having the ability to go and adventure, to go and do. To have the freedom, for lack of a better word, to be able to do the things I want to do. I don’t necessarily desire to have a lot of things. I’d rather make a lot of memories.”
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