Just before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Craig Gordnier, a former member of the U.S. Coast Guard, was about to close on a business deal in California that was two years in the making. But the health crisis sank his dream and sent him packing back to his parents' house in Massachusetts.
"I was all in on this business deal that did not go through," the 27-year-old said, who in April of last year sat on his parents' couch, polishing his resume and applying for jobs. "You know that defeated feeling? It gave me a chance to reassess ... what do I actually want to do?"
Gordnier's original life plan looked like this: Get a job, save some money in a 401(k), turn 65, retire, and see the world in a RV.
"So I was like, I'm just going to cut 40 years out of this plan," he said.
From RV to school bus
Gordnier quickly ruled out buying an RV outright because he didn't like most of their closed-in floor plans and found the finishes lacking in quality for the amount of money he was planning to spend. Instead, he was drawn to unique conversions of vans and school buses he found on TikTok and Instagram.
So he set out to find and convert a bus within his $40,000 budget.
He scoured Craigslist, different websites with tiny home listings, and Bus Life Adventure on Instagram that has a classified section with people selling their converted buses. He realized he didn't want an untouched bus, because it would take too much time to remove the seats, strip it all the way down, and raise the roof.
"And so I was hoping to be able to find either a finished bus and then just be done and be happy," he said. "But I went with a mix."
What he found was a bus in South Dakota, a full day's drive away. The roof had been raised by 20 inches, so the interior ceiling height was eight and a half feet. The original owner also installed RV windows and insulated the entire vehicle.
"I flew out to South Dakota as soon as I saw it," he said. He bought it and drove the 24 hours home.
'Like Noah was building the ark'
A regular school bus in its original shape goes for $5,000 to $8,000, Gordnier said. But because the one he bought had so much work done, it cost him just under $15,000 to buy.
"That limited me on the buildout," he said.
So he turned to recycled materials. The kitchen cabinets, which he sanded, repainted, and added new hardware, came out of a house. The blue bathroom tile came from a discount website. The countertops are made from scrap plywood and poured epoxy for a total cost of less than $200. The cedar and pine on the walls also were recycled to save as much money as possible.
Gordnier and his family also lives in a small town where everyone knows everybody. Neighbors and friends were eager to help Gordnier.
"I felt at one point when I was building a bus like Noah was building the ark. People were just stopping by and just gifting me scrap wood and materials," he said. "It was really cool."
'Like a kid building something out of Legos'
Gordnier also got a hand from his grandfather, who owns a home-building business, and his father, who is a carpenter. But Gordnier didn't slack; he leaned on skills he picked up in shop class in high school and turned to the internet to fill in the rest of the gaps.
He also went with his gut, rather than a plan.
"I built this like a kid building something out of Legos," he said.
First they tackled the skylights then the extended motorcycle deck and the storage underneath. The goal was to finish the exterior before the New England winter, when they could move to completing the interior. But they moved faster than that, building the bed platform and the bathroom wall in the back.
"And then from there we just built our way out towards the front of the bus with however it fit. We really just puzzle pieced the whole thing together," he said. "I had no idea what I was doing."
A few splurges
Even though he had a strict budget, Gordnier allowed himself two splurges: a fireplace and an espresso bar. Those two items "together probably cost more than everything in the rest of the entire inside of this bus," he said.
The fireplace is a fully electric heater that serves as the main source of heat for the bus. (An RV window air conditioning unit cools the place in the summer.)
"And it looks cool," Gordnier said. "I can change all the colors on the rocks, the down lighting, the flames. I can sync it to music. And it's a cool show piece, but the purpose of it is it blows a lot of hot air."
As for the espresso machine, Gordnier developed a taste for it while stationed in Puerto Rico six years ago. Back then, he even converted his laundry room into a coffee roastery and bought 100-pound sacks of green coffee from third generation coffee farmers from Spain.
"So yeah, I've been dreaming of that machine since 2015," he said. "And to finally have it... I wake up every morning, it's the first thing. I walk up, and I turn it on and it's how I start my day."
'They were the support team'
Gordnier, his grandfather, and his dad finished the bus by Thanksgiving. The day after the holiday, he headed south, taking his parents with him for the maiden voyage.
"They were actually the first people to sleep in the bed in the bus. I slept on the couch," he said. "But I love them, and without them, the bus wouldn't have gotten done. They were the support team."
(Fun fact: The couch is a three-quarter, a size between a full-sized and a queen-sized bed. The couch pulls out into a queen bed.)
Gordnier settled in an RV park in Greenville, South Carolina. He's seen his Instagram and TikTok following grow as people flocked to see his bus. His younger brother, who is leaving the Coast Guard soon, will join him for another adventure.
"He's a very talented music producer, and what we'd like to do is get his music studio set up here in the bus and then just travel and make music and shoot the music videos for the songs," he said, "right out of the bus — just all in one."