An Ode to the Bus

7 Min. Read
Old Hatch Bus at OARS Dino in Vernal

She sits in the shade of the cottonwood trees, content. She’s a bit creaky, her tires deflated and flat against the dry Utah dirt. She doesn’t move anymore. I couldn’t say the last time she even started. She was left down here sometime years ago to slowly rust out the rest of her life. Or maybe whoever left her knew she’d house generations of vagabonds. Maybe she was happy to make the change from shuttling those gleeful customers clutching their PFDs, helmets bouncing on their foreheads as she rumbled down the dirt road to and from the river. Maybe she settled into retirement with an engine sigh of relief.

Truthfully though, I don’t know what her life was like before I came along. All I know is she now sits in the glades, a towering cottonwood tree twice the diameter of my arms when I wrap them around it, gently leaning on her roof. The two have grown together, the perpendicular cottonwood reaching at an angle toward the eastern sky and her, the bus, sturdily holding it up. She’s reliable, to say the least.

I moved into the bus during my second year guiding rafting trips in Dinosaur National Monument. Guide housing is always unique, but the bus is a coveted spot. What luck for me as a second-year guide to be in the right place at the right time. For me to be in desperate need of housing and for her to be in desperate need of a tenant.

From the outside, she looks worn out. Her windshield is a spider web of glass from the neighbor kids using her as target practice. The left side of it completely shot out and boarded up with plywood. Her headlights are smashed in, from the kids or from the wind or because they got tired of staying upright. She faces an open patch of dried grass but extends back into the shade of her friendly cottonwood tree. The tree and the bus are surrounded by scrubby Russian olive trees, giving her some privacy. She’s a dull, slate blue with the words, “Hatch River Expeditions: Green, Yampa, Rogue, and Salmon” painted on the side next to some cartoonish mice creatures wearing PFDs. At a glance, she looks dilapidated, abandoned, forlorn, the paint chipping and metal groaning. But drawing nearer, paying more attention to her details, she is, in fact, none of those things. She is a creature all to herself—part earth, part machine. Worn and used and tired, maybe, but not sad. She is comfortable in her serenity.

Old Hatch Bus at OARS Dino in Vernal

To enter, I walk underneath the trunk of the cottonwood tree as it angles up to the roof of the bus and on toward the sky. When I push on the door that used to open from a large lever where the driver sat, it creaks and screeches like a crow. A bit rusty, but a door is a door. Inside is an open floor plan. All of her rows of seats have been removed, undoubtedly by a vagabond before me. The floors were lovingly cleaned and tiled and the walls painted mint green. The driver’s seat and steering wheel are still there, draped with cobwebs – no longer a place for driving, but a quaint home for spiders. Someone (without a lot of woodworking skills, but with good intention) built a bed frame out of wood planks. They crisscross and stick out at odd angles so if I’m not careful as I walk past I slam my kneecap into them. An actual mattress lays on the bed frame. No more paco pad nights for me.

There’s a lopsided table made out of the same plywood that patches one side of the windshield standing next to a leather armchair without any legs. A few old area rugs lay on the floor ready to be unrolled and walked upon by sandy feet. All of the remaining glass windows have been removed and replaced with screens stapled to the window frames. A light breeze blows in, carrying sand and tiny dirt particles into every corner. Her metal frame protects from the harshest elements, but the inside is not completely separate from the outside. Wind will blow in. Rain might, too.

I spend a lot of time making it feel like my home. I hang white Christmas lights around the rim of the interior. I buy fabric from Michaels and use safety pins and string to make curtains. I make the bed with sheets and a comforter, and I hang my hammock just outside the front door between the trunks of the cottonwood and Russian olive tree. At night I light a bunch of candles and play music and listen to the melodic sound of the wind rustling through the trees. Every once in a while a branch scratches against the roof of the bus in a long, tinny tap, like a gentle goodnight pat. When I blow out the candles, the darkness envelops me like a hug.

Old Hatch Bus at OARS Dino in Vernal

As the season rolls on, I spend less and less time at the bus. Back-to-back trips and a full schedule mean I’m away most of the time. But every time I return, after I’ve said my goodbyes to our guests, cleaned all the gear, and signed all the cards, I tiredly drag my feet down the dusty road toward home. I know she is waiting peacefully for me. Weary and sunbaked, sandy and sweaty though I am, she always welcomes me with the crinkle and creak of her rusty door.

The bus is not mine, although I laid claim to it for many seasons. She was my home and my space in a place where home and space don’t exist – at least not in the typical sense. Life as a river guide means everything is fluid, and that encompasses all aspects of our lives. Home is a transient concept, home is where the heart is, home is where the water flows. But everyone needs a spot – a place to sleep and dress and read and rest. We don’t ask for much, and we are completely capable with even less. We’re not in it for the riches or the creature comforts or the stability. We’re in it for the love. Love of the river, of the wilderness, of the wildness within ourselves. Love of the sand in our scalps and the soothing sound of water over rock. Love of mobility – the sheer joy of hand to oar, oar blade to water, stroke after stroke. Love of the awe in someone’s eyes as they watch a golden eagle soar between the canyon walls and the quiet pleasure of lying down at night to stare up at the unfathomable quilt of stars above.

Gates of Lodore rafting trip, Dinosaur National Monument

But the trips must end. They have a put-in and a take-out, and the beautiful bond between humans and earth must come to an end as well. When we’re jolted back into the 21st century, where cellphones ring and cars honk and people are late and angry and have bills to pay, when we can’t curl up in our sleeping bags on our boats and wake to the sight of cotton candy clouds floating over dark canyon walls, we need a spot – one where we can feel at home, where we don’t feel so lost in this big, loud world.

The bus was my spot for four years. She cradled me in her dark shell, soothing me as the wind caressed my face, always making my hair tickle my nose, her creaks and groans settling us both in for the night. She is where I rested, where I let myself slow down. Where I sat with friends and laughed and regaled stories into the wee hours. Where I cried and ate and peed in the bushes and realized the importance of home.

Home is still transient for me. I won’t be returning to the bus next summer. She will carry on in her stillness and house many more vagabonds. I hope each will appreciate her comfort as much as I did. That’s the beauty of this kind of life; my home was a bus that was someone else’s home before me and many others before them. Each tenant leaves a piece of themselves behind. They contribute a bed frame, repair a broken screen, clean out the sand and grit only for more to blow in. We keep her going and she keeps us going. The bottom line is we’re all connected – to each other, to the earth, and sometimes to old, creaky metal buses.

Sara O'Donnell

I guide for OARS Dinosaur in the summer, and in the winter you can find me playing in the snow in Little Cottonwood Canyon outside of Salt Lake City. In between my two major seasons I'm romping around the desert with very dirty feet, most likely scribbling down some stories along the way.  

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