I often look around my rented one-bedroom condo with a feeling of detachment. All this space filled with barely-used furniture and kitchenware and clothes – for what? To be honest, my residences haven’t felt like home since childhood.
Sure, buying my own condo/townhouse might give me that missing sense of permanency and ownership. At the very least, it would be a smart investment in the Seattle area, easy to rent out and likely to increase in value.
However, I am a millennial through-and-through, wary of commitment and always prattling on about rejecting “stuff” in favor of “experiences” (it’s ok, I find myself incredibly annoying too). So instead I fantasize about getting rid of it all, downsizing to living out of my car with a private mailbox for an address and a storage cube for all the things I genuinely enjoy (namely technology, outdoors gear, and garden gnomes – I’m no ascetic).
And then there’s the in-between option, finding a home that comes closer to an ideal balance of comfort, affordability, and self-expression. Over the weekend, we meet some individuals who have done just that with some particularly… alternative living spaces.
Staying on the Yellow Submarine
Driving down a quiet street in Vancouver (the Washington town, not the Canadian city), our destination is clear when we see what’s parked in the courtyard. Only not really, because we end up knocking on the wrong door and are directed to another door a few feet over where two kindly ladies head off into a third door to find Jimmy.
Jimmy Free cuts a mystical figure with his flowing brown hair and white linen clothes. He’s a laid-back musician who plays a six-string violin, and in order to create a home for touring in he purchased a school bus from a bus barn in Lynnwood, WA. He wants to show others what a house without a 30-year mortgage can look like.
Browsing used school bus sales online shows just how cheap the up-front cost can be (it’s no wonder they’re used as public transportation in parts of Central America), but Jimmy still had a lot of work to do. Now we get to see the fruits of his labor, and be the first guests to spend the night inside of his “Yellow Submarine”.
The bus is already larger than a standard size school bus, and appears even more spacious with all the seats removed. Walking from the driver’s seat to the plush queen bed in the back is a surprisingly long trip that passes a full-sized digital piano and drum, a bathtub and composting toilet, and a granite countertop with a sink, juicer, and copper kettle.
That night, next door to a vegan bar in nearby Portland, Nash and I pass a tiny house hotel. Whereas Jimmy’s school bus is a trendy version of an RV, tiny homes are an upper-middle-class makeover of the mobile home.
I typically picture tiny homes tucked away in some small forest clearing, a way to purchase solitude without interior sprawl. They look strange clustered together like this, cuter but less efficient than a traditional hotel.
Back at our own lodging, we find the bed incredibly comfortable. I sleep through the night to wake to sun illuminating the rounded ceiling, which is painted the exact shade of sunny skies blue. Ants have found our leftover Voodoo Donuts – whoever’s soul. There’s something invigorating about starting your day by stepping off a school bus and into another day of learning.
The Airplane in the Woods
After passing through miles of Oregon fruit orchards, we drive on a gravel path into the forest and step out of the car. Even though I know what we’ll find here, it still prompts an incredulous laugh.
A Boeing 727 sits parked in a clearing, its wingtips and tail practically brushing the trees. We approach cautiously, as though fearful of waking a sleeping dragon.
The plane’s owner, Bruce Campbell, is hard at work in the undercarriage. During the previous night, the plane had suddenly dropped and tilted several feet, jarring him awake. It’s not a problem you’d encounter in a normal wooden-walled dwelling, but Bruce tackles the challenges of his strange home with gusto. He’s in the midst of siphoning hydraulic fluid out of a barrel into the landing gear, but he still takes the time to greet us warmly and explain the situation.
We offer to pitch in, doing little things like fetching the hose to cool the air compressor (which is designed for paintball guns, not landing gear). We lean a stick against the right wing to measure progress as the behemoth plane slowly rights itself. When the branch falls to the ground, we give a cheer.
In the meantime, we get to know Bruce. He feels familiar – like many of my nerdy engineering cohorts, he’s softspoken, loves Japanese culture, spends time fiddling with electronics, and has grand technology-fueled dreams of the future. Unlike any of them, he purchased a commercial airliner from a salvage yard for $100,000.
I don’t remember how I found out about Bruce’s project, but I somehow stumbled across his website (airplanehome.com) and saw that you can arrange free tours over email. And now I can attest that this kind of dedication deserves to be shared, if only to prove that the atypical is possible.
After the plane is more or less level, we climb the stairs into the cabin, remove our shoes, and step inside.
With most of the seats and overhead bins removed, there’s plenty of living space, but it feels more like a survivalist outpost than a traditional home. That’s likely due to the fact we’re inside a metal canister that can hurtle through the stratosphere, survive hurricanes, and last for centuries.
We step softly across the clear acrylic floor, marveling over the size of the cargo hold below and the various gadgets strewn across workbenches. Climate control is provided through an ingenious well water system. The fore lavatory is functional, but the shower is a work in progress.
In the cockpit, the center console has been replaced with a computer monitor, the beginnings of a unique entertainment center. Many of the mysterious dials around it are missing. Bruce bemoans how much of the plane was stripped during salvage before he purchased it. Although these pieces aren’t essential for living, he’s been trying to replace as many as he can. He likely knows more about the 727 than many of the Boeing engineers who worked on it.
Next, Bruce invites us to remove the emergency exit door. It takes a little finagling, but are both able to lift the door out, taking care not to knock our shins. We can now say with confidence that we are able to assist in an evacuation when seated in an exit row.
We duck through the hole left by the door and step out onto the wing. Bruce plans to host concerts here featuring his musician friends. I like the vision of singing and dancing on the wing, but I mostly just itch to lie out here with my book, sky above and back supported by this retired marvel of engineering.
All too soon, it’s time for us to leave. We wish Bruce luck with his next potential project, starting a second airplane home in Miyazaki Japan, where he already spends half his time.
Regardless of whether I’d personally choose to live in a schoolbus or airplane, visiting these homes makes me realize that there are alternatives to the norm. If I ever play the Sims again, I think my dream house would look quite different than the library-filled mansions I built in my childhood.