A textile artist follows in her parents' footsteps of nomadic living with her partner in a roof-raised skoolie named Sage.
Thirty unique skoolies were chosen to be featured exhibitors at The Bus Fair. Since we were unable to meet in person this year, we are coming together digitally to share their stories with you. Meet Jen, Jon, and their bus Sage!
My name is Jen Rilley and my boyfriend Jon and I live full-time in our school bus turned amazing tiny home, Sage. I am 23 and Jon is 24. We both love to travel so skoolie life was a natural fit for us. My parents lived in a van in Europe when they were young so I grew up hoping to do the same. While I was in college, I discovered #skoolieconversion on Instagram and Pinterest and was immediately hooked. I bought Sage while I was in graduate school and once I graduated in May 2019 I headed out west to meet up with Jon to start our tiny life. It’s been an amazing year and I cannot wait to see what else bus life has to offer us.
Motor: Cummins 5.9
Interior Square Footage: 260
Current Location: Sedona, Arizona
Purchased From/Location: Weaverville, NC (but the bus is originally from Montgomery County, Tennessee)
Cost in materials for the conversion: too much
Total time from purchase date to on the road: 9 months
Interviewee: Jen Rilley
Why a bus?
Like many people, I chose a bus for the freedom it provides. I love the ability to travel, and I find inspiration for my life and work on the road, all while having the comforts of home. I’ve always wanted to be an artist and creator, and after I got my Masters in Textiles, I decided to commit to my dream, even though it was terrifying rejecting the conventional wisdom of settling down and working a stable job. Sage is my vehicle for finding who I am as an artist and adventurer, and I am building the life I want around her. I considered other types of homes on wheels, but a bus seemed like the perfect blank canvas to create my mobile dream home with enough space to include a studio for my textile work.
Does your bus have a name or phrase you call it? Why did you choose it?
Our bus is named Sage! I chose after I painted it, I thought the color resembled the plant as well as my ideas to move west. I think it fits!
Will you be full-timing?
Did you do the conversion yourself or did you hire someone?
We did a little bit of both! We didn’t have the skills or time to learn them, so it made a lot more sense to hire contractors for the more challenging and technical tasks. Skoolie.com in Hendersonville, North Carolina did our roof raise and window replacement. We’re super happy with the results, and glad we paid a professional to do it so we know it’s structurally sound and it looks great. We also hired Alex Gaebe at Carolina Tiny Homes to take care of the electrical/solar, plumbing and basic framing. All of his work is incredible, and we feel lucky to have found someone so talented and flexible. With the basics complete, some amazing friends and I made the bus livable with the floor, ceiling, basic kitchen, and bedroom. Although Sage was incomplete, I headed west to meet up with Jon. Over the past year, he and I have been finishing up the interior to bring our tiny house to life!
Who are you living/traveling with?
I feel very fortunate to live with my best friend. My boyfriend Jon is an expert botanist; talented mountain biker, climber, and hiker; and makes a mean breakfast. He has been so supportive and encouraging during every challenge and there to celebrate every success. Bus life is a blast, but even more so when you have someone amazing to share it with.
Were you all on the same page about living bus life or did one person (or more) have to be convinced?
No, Jon did not need to be convinced. The first time we met was on a whitewater kayaking trip near Asheville, NC where I knew there was a bus I wanted to check out. After the float, I dragged my friends to Vanlife Conversions, where I bought Sage. The rest of my friends were skeptical, but Jon was enamored from the very beginning. He was present for the first few failed attempts at demolition, then had to move west for a job while I finished grad school. We met back up later that year when the bus was partially finished and have been living in it together ever since.
What type of skills for the bus conversion did you have prior and what did you learn or teach yourself so far?
Before building the bus, I was highly competent at assembling IKEA furniture. Fortunately, this came in very handy since I used their cabinets and a few other pieces in the bus. I didn’t have much construction experience past that, so I’ve had to learn how to do almost everything else on the fly. Jon has some basic construction skills, but he was working 2,000 miles away for most of the initial build. While in college, I made friends with one of my professors and his wife. He is an excellent handyman and she is a skilled carpenter, so I bribed them with pizza and beer to help me with some of the more technical tasks. Over the past year, Jon and I have used trial and error, and lots of YouTube videos to figure out everything from installing a mini-split air conditioner to tiling a shower. We’re much better now at trusting our instincts and figuring out how to make things work! We’ve made some mistakes along the way and Sage isn’t perfect, but she is ours and we love her!
What is the most unique feature of your conversion?
From the beginning, I knew I wanted my bus conversion to be part home, part textile studio. My final plan for bus life is to make and sell handmade clothing, home décor, and naturally dyed yarns and textiles. While it’s not quite finished yet, many of the design decisions I made during the conversion process were to create a comfortable workspace. I raised the roof and changed out the original windows to let in more natural light and create more storage space for materials, added 1800 watts of solar and 400 AH of lithium battery to run my textile machinery. I also plan to install a dedicated variable-height work table and to mount my industrial sewing machines into the countertop. I’m in the process of setting up my business now, and should have things up and running soon!
How has the pandemic affected bus life for you?
We’ve had to make a few changes, but thankfully we’ve stayed healthy and employed! We decided staying put is the safest option for us, so we are parked at our friends house in Arizona for the time being. I’m enjoying working at a local bike shop and making the most of being in one place. Luckily, the quarantine gave us plenty of time to work on some necessary bus tasks. Since landing in AZ, we have finished our bathroom, installed an A/C, and added some personalization! Jon was originally planning to work for a national park in Alaska this summer, but the position was cancelled due to the pandemic. However, he found a last-minute position with an environmental non-profit organization in Colorado and will be close by for the next few months. I also put my sewing skills and workspace to use and made masks to sell in the community and protective gowns to donate to the local hospital as they fight Covid-19. We will most likely stay put until next spring, then resume our wandering!
How can people learn more about you (social media, website, etc.)?
You can follow us on Instagram at @tincancastle and read more about me, Jon, Sage, and our life on the road on our website: tincancastle.com. Stay tuned for more information about my textile studio from Sage & Oak!
More Articles By Elizabeth Hensley