Stella is a 1979 Greyhound bus (an MCI 9, Crusader 2). We found her in March 2010 on Craigslist, Albuquerque. The ad looked interesting, so we headed down to check her out.
Stella was pretty in need of some love when we found her, though her previous owners had done what they could. She had been a Greyhound bus, then a passenger bus between Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas. She then showed up at auction in Utah to be bought by the people we got her from – a couple of tattooists who had been traveling the country hopping between biker rallies, tattooing beefy bodies. Stella had done 989,000 miles. You DID read that right – nearly 1 million miles on the clock. The odometer since broke so we will miss watching it pass the milestone million mark, but we have covered a good 6,000 since we have had her and we’re assured that these Detroit Diesel engines are built to do 3 million miles. Yeehaa, what a beast!
We bought our bus, we were sold by the scope of what she represents – the transformation possible, the blank (if messy and pretty mingingly dirty) canvas. The under-bus storage is also a winner for a touring band as we can fit set/stage/lighting rig/soundsystem, still have space for a grey water holding tank, bikes, a sewage tank and surplus food provisions.
The interior presented a unique opportunity to define our space. We got to work as soon as we got her home to our weird and wonderful little town of Madrid, NM: historical coal town, former ghost town and erstwhile hippy colony, now home to around 200 artists, vagabonds, off-gridders, dreamers, fiddlers, co-creators, bar regulars, revelers, pedlars and friends.
The worst part of Operation Getting Stella Clean was definitely dealing with the bathroom and the holding tank of festering human waste that (stomach-searingly) had on more than one occasion been opened and drained directly onto the engine compartment! The first drive up the Turquoise Trail, through the Ortiz Mountains, heated everything up nicely. The shock of ‘that’ stench when we got home was unbelievable. What we found in the engine compartment was worse. Cleaning it was probably the single most disgusting job to date – in our lives. Emptying 15 gallons of (other people’s!) human waste into 5 gallon buckets to dump in our own bathroom, whilst fishing out beer cans(!) was… you can imagine… No, don’t! Stop there! We shall move swiftly on… There are no photos here. The job was way too intense to consider documenting.
The initial renovations were basic. We were on both a limited budget and a limited time frame and there were several mechanical considerations to address first. The brake and running lights did not work. There were a couple of leaks in the air brake system, the front door wouldn’t close properly. We needed new batteries. We fixed a leak in the power-steering system that the previous owners had jobbily patched up with bubblegum and a penny! (not joking).
We have completed two long tours in the bus and are about to embark on the third. Stella has had a different interior incarnation each time depending on needs, money and time. The interior and exterior paint jobs that we did at this time, however, both still stand.
Our first trip was our fall tour of the West Coast US. We were traveling with a friend and photographer from London, Billy Steel, so his comfort was also a consideration in the first Stella refit. We needed privacy for the 3 of us (Justin, Jo and then 1 year old Ziggy), and we needed for Billy to feel at home in his space too. We were also traveling with our two dogs, Alfie and Lulu.
We chose to divide the bus mid way down to create a back bedroom for us and we hung a curtain in the doorway that this dual-purpose kitchen-on-one-side, bedroom-on-the-other shelving unit/wall provided. Billy slept up front on the long, comfy couch from our living room with one of our two West African trunks to store his clothes and belongings. We cooked with a camp stove and stored our food in tupperwares and boxes under the kitchen shelf. We carried most of our provisions under the bus. The old passenger bus bathroom was still in situ, though clean and ‘retired’. We bought a small, chemical potty and put that in the bathroom with a bin and a pack of wet wipes. It was basic, but it worked.
The route would take us from Madrid, NM across the Southwest and up into Nevada, the Reno, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, across to San Francisco, Santa Cruz, up, through Portland, to Seattle, back to SF, to LA, across to AZ, up to the Grand Canyon and then home.
The trip wasn’t devoid of incident. On the way to Reno we ran out of gas! On a hill. With no hard shoulder. We had to be towed, sleep in the lot of the garage and get primed and filled in the morning. This meant checking out the sights and sounds of some small town somewhere in NV. I forget the name of the town but the meal we had there was great!
We were running an inverter to have electricity to run lights and charge phones and laptops while moving. Several times we killed our batteries this way and had to be jumped by a Good Sam member mechanic probably 4 times! We managed a couple of other times with passing trucks… Good Sam stressed to us when we returned home that ‘the breakdown service should not be considered a replacement for regular service to your vehicle’. Sorry guys! Lessons learned – and we were grateful.
The big job whilst on the road required a lengthy stay in a Shell service station, at one of the Bakersfield (otherwise known as Cowschwitz) exits off I5. Our compressor had blown. We didn’t have the money to do more than buy the part, so Justin really came into his own as a mechanic here. Billy, Ziggy and I sat in I-Hop drinking terrible coffee and offered tea and sandwiches as moral support. Justin worked full-on, learning more and more about the workings of an MCI 9 as he went. It was intense, and messy. He was our hero all said and done, no question.
Returning from tour saw us ripping out the original Greyhound bathroom, which had no holding tank anymore and a loo and washing area that were frankly too reminiscent of ‘that job’ and ‘that smell’ for us to suffer. It was also in the wrong place in terms of our new, planned holding tank and we wanted to have a king size bed across the back. So the bathroom went.
Next to go was the old tiled floor. It had been sealed with caulk, which kept coming off, was really difficult to keep clean and meant that any jerking in the bus and falling objects meant breakages on the hard floor. We arranged a trade with a friend in town who is a carpenter (a movie set builder and visual artist) and he agreed to build the king-size bed for us and replace the floor. David Baca and his room-mate Alejandro demoed the tile and laid the new floor.
We took down the central divide as, this tour, we would have no guests on board, moved the kitchen up front and ditched the sofa idea as it weighs a ton, is hard to get in and out and once it moved forward rather a lot when we braked hard (scary!). So we decided to opt for minimalism this time, as we couldn’t afford any fittings at this point. We just enjoyed the new bed and the open expanse of our zen feeling new floor.
The second tour was a California affair. After trekking out of NM and through AZ, we started in Joshua Tree with the gorgeous high desert dwelling folks there. The Mojave desert in June with no a/c was hot!hot!hot! and mind-blowingly deserted. We picked up a hitch-hiker somewhere around there, and older gent with a bike with a bust-in front wheel. He had been on the road from Detroit, heading to California looking for work. We fed him sandwiches and stocked him up with more and boxes of juice before saying farewell and some crossroads between nowhere and nowhere else. Gary, we hope you are doing grand. No question, this guy was a survivor.
We then headed to the Mex-Cali border for a festival before traveling up the coast, through LA to Santa Cruz, Los Gatos and San Francisco. We played Burning Man Precompressions in the Bay area and hung out with friends old and new. We swam in LA, camped in the woods in the Santa Cruz Mountains, baked on rocks at the border, hung out by the waves in Pacifica and ate midnight noodle soups and cheesecake in downtown SF. It was wicked.
Now we are off again – to Burning Man. This third incarnation, we will not be through with by the time we head off (in less than 2 weeks!) but this is the beginning of the first ‘permanent’ fit she has known. It is in this round of changes that we will plumb in the bathroom and fit a less camping style kitchen. Think seriously solar, off-grid and lay the groundwork for Stella becoming our permanent home, rehearsal space and – with the addition of a few set pieces, and external rigs – a touring performance vehicle. We have a couple of fittings inside that are going to make a big difference to life on board – a loft bed cubby for Ziggy and a totally awesome kitchen courtesy of a refit of local restaurant The Hollar. Pics and details coming as we move forward.