Our first and second days of owning a school bus had been very productive thus far: 22 seats taken out, photos taken for our State Farm Insurance Agent to prove we actually took the seats out, 22 seats reloaded and strapped in behind the driver seat, Generac 4000xl Generator loaded and Gas can loaded and secured behind the passenger-side crash barrier. Our next goal: actually driving the beast home.
I do not have a CDL. I have never driven a school bus before. I have never driven anything remotely as big as this thing on land before. I drove a big dually pick-up and a 30 foot horse trailer working as a horse-drawn carriage driver on Jekyll Island, GA one winter. I am a US Coast Guard-Licensed 100-Ton Boat Captain and have driven pretty big tour boats (80 feet) in the past so between my experience between the horse trailer and the boats, I felt really good about getting the bus home.
As soon as I fired up our bus and drove it away from the seller’s farm, I immediately had two revelations: 1.) This thing is HUGE. 2.) Air Brakes are not hydraulic brakes. After a ridiculously jerky start (air brakes are either “on” or “off”; so riding the brake pedal isn’t really a thing you want to do at slow speed), I managed to keep my foot off the brakes until I actually needed them only to scrub every single low hanging branch along the side of the seller’s winding, wooded driveway. Getting out onto the two lane highway was another shock as I realized just how much of a standard-width road lane a school bus actually occupies (basically all of it). After a few moments of gathering myself and idling along, I press the gas, the RPMs climb, the turbo whistles and we were off! With Sarah and Charlie behind me in our Highlander, we begin to wend our way across the south Georgia countryside, passing giant Live Oaks draped in Spanish Moss and sprawling cotton fields. Despite from my speedometer cutting in and out intermittently and a unfounded sense that some sort of terrible mechanical failure would occur at any moment, the drive goes incredibly smoothly. About 35 minutes and two grey hairs later we make it to our Motel for one last night before our big drive home the next day.
The next day we woke up early with surprisingly stiff muscules but eager to get on the road and complete this first phase of our bus project. After about an hour of sitting in the motel office, tying to get our insurance paperwork to print at a legible size and quick game of fetch in the back of the bus with Charlie, we loaded up, Charlie and Me in the Bus and Sarah, once again as our chase car in the rear.
It was a beautiful, clear 60° F day in South Georgia as we set off at about 11:00 am and headed southeast towards Albany, Tifton, Waycross and ultimately Jacksonville. Still being new to the big vehicle and somewhat leery that an unknown mechanical grimlin would rear it’s head at any minute, the 30 mile drive from Americus, GA to Albany, GA felt like it took HOURS. This was only compounded by our now entirely inoperable speedometer and odometer and lack of an onboard clock. In reality it took about 35 minutes. A pee break for all three of us, a fill up for Liz (Our venerable Toyota Highlander) and a reassuring conversation with Sarah that I was in fact not swerving all over the road in our big bus and we were off again. My anxiety somewhat subdued, we were off again on our maiden voyage headed to Tifton, the halfway point of our drive. This is where I really started to enjoy the trip. The sun was out, the air was cool, no alarms had started blaring, air pressure in the brakes was holding and I was driving our big turbocharged future home. Within about an hour, I was very relaxed; Charlie was loving looking out the million or so windows, chasing his tail, playing fetch with himself with a tiny rock he found. At the Tifton city limits, I was only diving deeper into my diesel-driving bliss when Charlie starts whining and whining consistently. Nothing too weird, he is only a year and a half and has a tendency to get bored and then incredibly anxious. But still, it was odd for him to be this needy. Then I remember our full Gasoline can I stowed aboard for the generator last night and I immediately realized why I was becoming increasingly blissed-out: we were getting high on gasoline fumes. Shit. Poor little 30 lb Charlie is way more sensitive to this stuff than 215 lb me, we need to stop, quick. Another realization: urban areas aren’t necessarily the easiest places to just pull over in a 38 foot, 8 Ton vehicle. We spend another 15 minutes cruising and Me furatively trying to find a pull-out spot. I finally find it at the city fairgrounds and I don’t even bother to look for the leash. I park, shut down, we both pile out and breath our first breath of fume-free air in an hour and a half.
Sarah, loving as ever, grabs a ball and another impromptu game of fetch ensues, I break open the Yeti and make some thick turkey sandwiches for us, I relocate the gas can to the back of the bus, open most of the windows, Charlie loads up with Mama in the Highlander and we’re off again!
The rest of our trip goes increasingly smoothly: three hours, a few more pee breaks, a stop for $102 worth of diesel (yeah, apparently “fuel-effiecency” is a relative term when it comes to these big trucks), dozens of cotton fields and the Okeefenokee swamp later, we roll into our rented truck-storage yard in downtown Jacksonville just after nightfall feeling a bit drained and a bit sore but none-the-worse for the wear and feeling very, very accomplished.