After refurbishing an old school bus and turning it into a home on wheels, Ben and Mande Tucker hit the road seeking the freedom of a simple life. Their fully functional (and comfortable) motorhome is complete with a rooftop deck, hammock posts, and bike mounts — everything they need to connect with their surroundings. Since they first left their traditional home in 2017, Ben and Mande have learned to adjust to tiny-living among the great outdoors.
Hoping to learn more about what it’s like to live on the road, we caught up with Ben, Mande, and their bus, Fern.
Can you tell me a bit about how you got started on this adventure?
After finishing college, we both left our hometown of Holland, Michigan, to seek adventure and new experiences. I had been living in a school bus with my best friends. We called the project “the Lost Bus” — L.O.S.T. being an acronym for Lending Our Services Traveling. We explored the country while volunteering our time and skills to help various individuals and organizations. During that same time, Mande was living in the mountains of Utah, working as a school teacher and exploring the beauty of the American West. In June of 2011, we both moved back to Holland to spend the summer with friends and family. After meeting through a mutual friend, we exchanged stories and were immediately drawn to each other’s sense of adventure and appreciation for the outdoors. Since building and living in the Lost Bus, I had dreamed of doing it again. So, in that respect, Fern had been a dream of ours for years before we finally found the right bus. But Fern had it all — low mileage, very little rust, a strong diesel engine, and that classic, old-school look. Once we found the right van, it was only a matter of time before we hit the road in 2017.
How long did it take to get Fern road-ready?
We worked on Fern for about seven months before she was ready to hit the road. We did the entire project ourselves. With full-time jobs and limited spare time, we squeezed the projects into nights and weekends. She’s a continual work in progress, and will probably never be 100 percent complete — I’m sure we will continue to do mini renovations as we live in the bus and adapt to the van lifestyle.
Where did the name Fern come from?
Mande is a second-grade teacher, and she was reading “Charlotte’s Web” around that time. So, we decided that Fern was the best name for her!
Your website says that you left home in search of simplicity. Can you elaborate on that?
We wanted to break out of our routines and embrace freedom and spontaneity. We longed to explore the vastness of our country and get to know its people. We dreamed of having more campfires, seeing more sunrises, and swimming in more mountain streams. We knew there was unbelievable beauty and solitude to be found, along with countless fascinating people to meet and stories to exchange. We simply wanted more of all of that.
When you first set off, you were gone for about three months — how did you pack?
We prioritized the things that are most important to us. We’re pretty active, so bringing our paddleboards was a given, and having access to our bikes was also important. Other than that, we choose a few of our favorite outfits and tried to keep it as simple as possible. It’s amazing how little we actually need!
When you finally took to the road, was it what you expected?
Life in the bus has been better than we ever dreamed. Since we completed the build, Fern has carried us over 10,000 miles. The interior construction and carpentry are holding up great, despite all the potholes and bumps we’ve hit along the way. And, the engine hasn’t required any extra attention outside of routine and preventative maintenance. We’re so thankful!
Where was your first destination, and where have you traveled since then?
Our first stop was in the Badlands of South Dakota. Coming from the Midwest, we longed for wide-open spaces — and it was the first destination that gave us that feeling we were searching for. It was the perfect first stop. Since then, we’ve explored the rest of South Dakota, along with Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and a lot of Canada.
What’s been the biggest challenge of van life?
Since we live in such a small space, we have to dedicate a lot more time and effort to be clean and organized. Our entryway is also our living room and kitchen, so dirt and dust and stinky boots are an endless battle. It’s crazy how much more comfortable we feel when things are somewhat tidy.
What do you like about living in a van?
It makes us feel more in tune with nature. We adapt to the natural rhythms of day and night and the mood of the weather, and we’re a bit more impacted by rainstorms and wind gusts, as well as heat waves and cold fronts. For the most part, this is an absolutely positive thing. The space we built is comfortable and functional, but we’re not on the road to live in our bus, but to live out of it. The ability to explore new places, meet new people, and have our home wherever we are is the greatest thing.
What has this nomadic lifestyle taught you?
We can live in a bus for months at a time without feeling cramped or uncomfortable. Fern is spacious and well-equipped, yet maneuverable and capable of going most places. She cruises a bit slower than other, newer, vehicles, but we’re happy to live at a slower pace. We love that she’s unique and grabs people’s attention — in fact, a lot of people come by and say hello just because they’re drawn to the bus, which is fun.
We’ve also learned how to live a full life with less material possessions, which has certainly simplified life on the road. It’s taught us to slow down a bit as well. It’s easy to feel eager to see all there is to see, but keeping a quick pace burns us out. We love to settle into a space, enjoy the location, and really get to know the people we come in contact with.
How much time do you spend on the road?
Our flexible lifestyle allows us to travel in Fern while also owning a home back in Michigan. Although we’ve always dreamed of prolonged road trips and extensive travel, it takes a deliberate effort and a lot of sacrifices to make these adventures happen. We’ve had to simplify our life, cut our expenses, and work hard to save money. Now, we feel like we get to live the best of both worlds with a healthy balance of travel and stability.
Do you ever get sick of driving?
Yes! The long stretches of just-trying-to-get-to-a-destination can be painfully slow. But living out of a bus has taught us that every moment is an adventure that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Have you found your way into a van community?
We’ve definitely found a van community on social media! Also, two of our best friends have a bus conversion (@alwayshomebus), and traveling with our friends is one of our favorite things. Fern also draws quite the crowd, so we typically meet friendly people everywhere we go, which is something we love! It has been wonderful to experience new places, people, and life on the road with lifelong friends.
Do you have any routines or rituals that make your day-to-day life feel a bit more consistent?
French press coffee is the best way to start any day, right? Although the views around us constantly change, we keep our routines in the bus — morning coffee, cleaning and tidying up, laundry, etc. — pretty consistent in order to maintain a comfortable lifestyle in such a small space.
What do you wish you knew when you first set off?
It’s not a race. In the beginning, we pushed a little too hard to reach our destinations, which led to exhaustion from extensive driving. We’ve since learned that slowing down and seeing every moment as an adventure is the mindset you need to fully dive in to living on the road.
Where is Fern headed next?
We are more than excited to welcome our son into the world this May. Although we fully plan to travel with our little guy, we haven’t come up with a destination quite yet. Colorado has been mentioned, but again, nothing is set in stone — and we’re okay with that! Spontaneity is one of our favorite types of adventures, after all.
For more stories about Ben, Mande, and Fern, follow @fernthebus on Instagram.