Author and former FBI employee, Jordan O'Donnell, takes his new novel and cautionary tale for the U.S. on the road in his school bus conversion with 17 interns in tow.
What are two things that bring people together? In our opinion, books and buses. In 2020 America, it has become increasingly difficult for people with different beliefs to come together or talk to each other at all. But how would it look if we were animals in a zoo? How might we see our actions differently? Such is the impetus of Jordan O'Donnell's new novel Zoon Garden. It takes readers into an abandoned zoo where the animals are free to govern themselves. The zoo plunges into chaos and the book serves as a warning of what can happen if we continue down this precarious path.
To promote his timely novel, O'Donnell and his buddy Jake “The Caveman” Harris built out a skoolie and enlisted 16 more interns to go on a book tour spreading its message across the United States. Although the pandemic upended much of their plans, they made the most of their time traveling to remote and iconic places and enjoying each other's company. Learn more about O'Donnell's book, the build and their wild bus tour below.
Motor: DT 466 International Diesel
Interior Square Footage: 205
Current Location: Shenandoah, VA
Purchased From/Location: Richmond, VA (Collegiate School)
Cost in materials for the conversion: 8K-10K (About 5k was the electrical system)
Total time from purchase to the road: Roughly 18 months. The bus sat for six months untouched. We then worked on and off for a year until it was complete.
Tell us about Zoon Garden and why it is so important for people to read right now.
Zoon Garden is a social critique very similar to Orwell’s Animal Farm. It tells the story of Clarendon Zoo and how the wolves and sheep, the nation’s two leading tribes, accidentally destroy the zoo. Whether it’s the pigeons squawking in the air, the bigger birds showing one side of the story, the wolves tyranny, or the sheep’s communism, the novel critiques basically everything.
One Amazon reviewer noted he “would highly recommend this read to anyone -- especially those who care about and/or take an interest in the future of this country...or in humanity for that matter.” The world is divided, in uncertain waters, and headed in a treacherous direction. Anyone worried about it should read Zoon Garden.
How/when did you get the idea for Zoon Garden?
The idea for Zoon Garden came while I was working for the FBI. 2018 was the height of the Clinton Email and Russia Investigations, and I was put on a team to sift through the emails of Director Comey, Deputy Director McCabe, and any related internal communications. The experience showed me the underbelly of Washington and combined with the increasing division across America I wanted to write a novel that opened people’s minds to the roots of our nation’s issues. Oddly enough the idea for animals in a zoo came about as I randomly walked through a grocery store. I couldn’t help but think America was like a giant zoo separated into different species that refused to communicate.
The book serves as a sort of warning, what is your hope for the future and what can we do now?
The book is certainly a warning. My intention was to show Americans, and much of the world for that matter, what could happen to a nation that continues down our trajectory. It shows how both the radical right and left are dangerous, how media manipulation cause mass distrust, and how the destruction of truth will cripple every institution and pillar in our society. It truly is a warning people should heed because it’s happening even faster than I anticipated.
My hope is that the novel inspires open minds and a genuine sense of understanding. Life is yin and yang, a dichotomy, a balance; it’s not one side or another. I hope Americans read this book and see that we need to find a middle ground and genuine empathy. Our future hinges on it.
Why a bus?
A good bus is more adaptable than any RV. Our bus is a diesel with only 120,000 miles… basically brand new. It just took a 10,000-mile road trip with zero mechanical issues and will go to 500,000 miles with ease. We installed solar panels and a water filtration system to allow us to go completely off-grid and did everything for under 15K. An RV with similar capabilities would cost 2x-3x that price. Overall, you can’t find the adaptability, size, price, or comfort with any other vehicle. A bus allowed us to create a personalized adventure mobile that can survive any journey, even one around North and South America.
Who are you living/traveling with?
To promote my novel I hired 17 college interns from around the country: California, Texas, Idaho, Florida, New Jersey, New Hampshire, etc. The 18 of us are living on the bus and two travel trailers as we adventure through America. The team is split into media (handles social media and podcast), video (shoots the documentary and creates vlogs), and publicity (promotes the book and schedules appearances). 18 strangers caravanning America has been absolutely crazy in the best way possible, lots of adversity and hardly anything has gone to plan, but that’s what makes it amazing.
Does your bus have a name? If so, why did you choose it?
Our bus driver Jake “The Caveman” Harris (The guy with the huge red beard) named his car Martha. Fittingly when he began driving the bigger older bus he named her Martha Sr.
What type of skills for the bus conversion did you have prior and what did you learn or teach yourself so far?
I had carpentry skills and was able to build all the framing, walls, couches and beds. But two engineering friends helped me learn the plumbing and electrical components. The electrical system has hands down been our greatest challenge. It is fidgety and cooling the inverter charger in 110 degree Arizona heat has been very difficult. We’ve been having problems with it for two months and haven’t been able to fully diagnose the issue.
How has the pandemic affected bus life for you?
The pandemic has drastically affected us. It basically ruined our entire book tour because we couldn’t set a true itinerary or schedule any events. We couldn’t meet in groups of larger than 10 and we had to completely change our itinerary four times to avoid COVID-19 “hot-spots.”
At the same time, the pandemic is what made our trip such an adventure. An 18-person caravan of strangers road tripping during a global pandemic has never been done; the documentary is going to be incredible.
What has been the hardest thing about this whole lifestyle change/ living/traveling in a bus? Easiest thing?
The hardest thing has been managing a team of 18 people traveling. The logistics are difficult, and if it weren’t for our incredibly flexible team I don’t think it would be possible. Outside of those challenges, the hardest part is not having a routine. Lack of showers, lack of sleep schedules, lack of working out, and lack of eating at normal hours have been huge challenges. Spontaneity is beautiful, but it starts to wear on the body.
The easiest transition has been the minimalism. We only have what we need, and it has been awesome to survive on the bare essentials. It has shown me just how many unnecessary many things are.
What has been the most memorable part of the bus tour and why?
They say that you shouldn’t take a journey alone because it’s the people that make the experience. I have found that to be true. As much as they drive me absolutely bananas, this group of 18 people has been the highlight of the trip. We’ve become a family. The best parts are driving with the windows down jamming to music, getting to know people’s idiosyncrasies, the constant laughter, standing at Lake Tahoe, Battery Point, Malad Gorge, etc., arm in arm with your new friends. It’s the constant banter, never knowing what someone will do next or what is around the corner. The uncertainty of the journey and bonding over that experience is the most memorable part.
We spoke with a man in Big Bear, CA, who said America was the most beautiful country in the world and that if everyone saw all of her beauty the world would be a better place. I have thought often of that conversation because it is true. To experience the forests of the east, the flatness of West Texas, the red clay of Arizona, the giant sequoias, the California beaches, the Colorado River winding through the Rockies, etc. shows you the scope and sheer awe of America. It gave me a new perspective on this incredible land and made me appreciate this country.
If I had to list one specific memory it would be when we tried to go to John Muir woods but it was closed. Instead, we went to John Muir beach. The quaint beach is nestled in the valley, the river running into the ocean, the driftwood with fires in the center, the hiking trails along the hills, and the 80 eccentric houses packed onto the cliffside—it’s a magical place.
Ultimately, why did you decide to do this?
Why not? Everyone complains about the 9-5, how they want to do something different with their life, and how they want to experience the world. How many people actually have the courage to do it? I thought a road trip of this magnitude, something absolutely crazy that had never been done, was the perfect way to promote a timely novel and also have the journey of a lifetime. The purpose was to spread a message of unity and encourage others to chase their own dreams. Don't talk, go out and do something wild.
How can people learn more about you (social media, website, etc.)?
Facebook: Zoon Garden Promotion Tour
The book is available on Amazon: simply Google “Zoon Garden”
More Articles By Elizabeth Hensley