This is why we travel

Words by • Photos by Project Moose

What compels a bunch of young Australians to buy an old Canadian school bus, spend months in freezing weather converting it into a motorhome, and then drive it around the United States of America?

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Geoff Dyer once wrote that travel, when ideal, is about feeling at home anywhere, everywhere. So what better way to feel at home in the vast anywhere and everywhere of the United States than to find a bus, strip it, kit it out, paint it, and create your very own moveable home?

Earlier this year, a tightknit crew of young Australians from Toowoomba did just that, spending three months and thousands of dollars refitting a classic yellow school bus. They did it in Banff, in the Canadian rockies, through the winter, where the temperature would dip to minus 30 degrees. Where they had to scrape the snow and ice off the bus before they could start work. Where they had to wear thermals, gloves and feather down coats even inside the bus as they lay floorboards and insulation, installed beds and couches, a refrigerator and a toilet and — most important for a road trip — a stereo sound system.

All of this begs the question: why? Why make all this effort just for a holiday?


Toowoomba, Queensland: home to the magical Weis Bar, and maybe also the birthplace of the lamington. Also home to Charlie, Chris, Gerard, Olivia, Lindsay and Matt: six friends who left their jobs, their families, their university degrees, and all the comforts of home to spend eighty-seven days taking the long way between two towns of Canada. These six — all under twenty-five years old, among them a lawyer, an engineer and a financial adviser — rolled through an impressive list of American states that eventually included Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York. By the time they finished their trip they’d made the news both in Australia and America, appearing in newspapers and on breakfast television, and popping up in social media feeds around the world. Inspired by legends before them, they too would become legends back home — and they’ll be inspiring more wannabe legends for years to come.

The bus? ‘The Spruce Moose’, named after crazy Montgomery Burns’ small wooden aeroplane, and also because of Moose Street, where all six of them lived while refitting the bus. A propane-powered 1986 Chevrolet Bluebird, part of the Go Series, the bus was purchased in Calgary at the start of the year, found using Canada’s version of Gumtree, ‘Kijiji’.

“The guy we bought it from was a bit of a douche. He kind of just handed us the keys and said, ‘Get out of here’,” says Matt McIver. “When you’ve never driven a 40-foot school bus before and you're driving on the other side of the road, in a city that has some unbelievably confusing street layouts – well, let’s just say I was shitting myself. But the adrenaline of having just bought a school bus overcame the fear and, after spending some cash at Home Depot, we made it back to freezing Banff.”

And it was in Banff, just over an hour from Calgary in Canada’s south-west province of Alberta, that for three long freezing months our six Moosers — at different stages, with different helpers, all of them working different jobs in the ski fields — turned an old yellow school bus into a sleek and stylish sleeper vehicle.

Led by Gerard, a recent graduate of mechanical engineering who’d already built robots and even a teardrop trailer, the Moosers did everything themselves: they brainstormed and they designed blueprints, before rolling on down to the home improvement superstore to buy all the materials raw off the shelf: timber, insulation, floorboards, benchtops, cabinets, paint, power tools, sofa cushioning, a sink, a fridge, and a toilet.

They tore out all the seats apart from four, and laid down a click-click floor, ply walls and a ply roof - all with insulation behind, so they wouldn’t freeze on the road. They sanded, hacked, sawed, nailed, screwed, and painted. Using the inside of the bus as a workshop (it was far too cold outside), they built bunk beds, couches that turned into beds, window frames, storage cupboards and drawers, dividing walls, lighting, a bookshelf, and an electrics box that housed all the switches for the water pump, stereo, sub, appliances inverter, lights and the fridge.

They spent long days, and even longer nights, making The Spruce Moose a reality – and it all had to be done in time so they could fang it down to California in time for Coachella Festival.

Matt remembers not much else about working on The Spruce Moose, except the cold. “Some of the nights out on the bus it was legitimately minus-30 degrees, and we were installing the roof or something stupid like that. We’d get so pumped about it. It was such a crazy thing to try and do in the conditions and circumstances, but we pulled it off anyway.”

After months of back-bending labour and frosty fingers, the result pleased everyone.

Lindsay put it best: “This bus was something special. This bus had steez.”

"This bus was
something special.
This bus had
Part Two

Why Chase Adventure?

In 2010, my then-girlfriend and I drove for three months through thirteen states of the USA, at the wheel of, and sleeping in, a loch-green 1996 Chevrolet Astro van. To come from Australia — which in many ways is a miniature America, but in many more ways is the far-away down-under world of mythical and real monsters, the place where on one hand we hang with cracked fingernails onto our convict past and with the other knock eagerly on the door of the future — travelling through America was like stepping inside another dimension, a dimension in my mind that held every book, film, TV show, song, painting, photograph and website that I have ever encountered, ever. But it was also completely strange and new. America will always be America - but as the Moosers discovered, just as I discovered, America is also very not-America, too.

The Chevrolet Astro we kicked around in was your standard-issue family passenger van, which we hastily kitted so that we could ‘live’ in it. We constructed the bed from a jumble of hardware and camping store supplies (a piece of chipboard under camping foam under sleeping bags under quilt), which we lay on top of the two rear rows of folded-down seats. It was definitely no Spruce Moose.

When I look back, it’s clear to me that what I was after was an old-fashioned adventure. It feels strange to admit that, though; it’s one of those motives that drive a lot of people, but most don’t own up to it. Why is that? Is there something inherently wrong with chasing adventure?

In a 1980 interview, the jazz pianist Bill Evans said something about art which, if you replace the word “art” with “adventure” or “travel” or “life”, could be maybe applied to what the Moosers did: “I think some young people want a deeper experience. Some people just wanna be hit over the head and, you know, if then they [get] hit hard enough maybe they’ll feel something … [But] they’re not going to be the great percentage of the people. A great percentage of the people don’t want a challenge. They want something to be done to them — they don’t want to participate. But there’ll always be maybe 15% maybe, 15%, that desire something more, and they’ll search it out — and maybe that’s where art is, I think.”

So, did the Moosers want to be hit over the head? Olivia tells me that they all just wanted to try something different. “Buying a school bus was a bit of a running joke for a couple of months, but when the boys contacted me saying they were actually serious about it, it was just too good an opportunity to pass up. The bus gave us the freedom to travel where and when we wanted and also provided a home away from home.”

Matt simply asks: why not? “What was stopping us? It was challenging, for sure, but as some cringe-y internet quote would say, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. We had a blast with the entire project … We were free. We had no time schedule except our own, and even that we changed basically every day.”

“I guess we just wanted something completely different,” Charlie told me. “We’d all done a bit of backpacking and we’d all done a bit of travelling, but this was unlike anything that I’d spoken to anyone about before. And at the same time, it was iconic: the great American road trip.”

"We just wanted
something completely
different. And at the
same time, it was iconic:
the great American
road trip."
Part Three

The United States Is…

I learned recently, while procrastiwatching National Treasure: Book of Secrets, that it was only in 1879 that Americans saw themselves as one united country, rather than a bunch of separate territories. As Nicolas Cage’s totally unconvincing character Benjamin Franklin Gates says, in a moment of gravitas and poignancy (or at least as much gravitas and poignancy as is possible from Nicolas Cage in a treasure hunting blockbuster), “Before the Civil War, the states were all separate. People used to say ‘the United States are.’ Wasn't until the war ended, people started saying ‘the United States is.’ Under Lincoln, we became one nation.” Meaningful stuff.

Thing is, the Moosers, as they drove around, realised that they'd found themselves not in America, or even in states. Instead, they were always in small cities, and in smaller towns, and in even smaller neighbourhoods. They quickly discovered that it was the people that made a place, not the political boundaries, so they found themselves shying away from metropolises and most tourist attractions. “On this trip we could have gone to places like LA, or Florida, places where we knew lots of people were going to be,” Charlie says. “But instead we enjoyed ourselves most when we rolled through small towns, all the Bumfuck, Idahos. Those few instances where you really do feel like you’re at the end of the earth, in one of the biggest countries in the world; it’s great, and weird. That was definitely [thanks to] the bus: being able to travel to those small towns and get a feel for what the actual country is like.”

Project Moose took these six friends in a great big ‘U’, one that started with a straight shoot down from the south-west of Canada, took them along the southernmost states of America, and ended with them winding all the way up the east coast and back into Canada, in Toronto. The trip topped out at over 15,000 kilometres – a distance hard to fathom when just staring at a map.

Paul Theroux wrote in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star that “Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don't know and trusting them with your life.” It was in the south that the Moosers found themselves really letting go of caution. Whether it was because they were far enough into their trip that they felt nothing could cause them to waver, or because people down south really are friendlier and more authentic, it doesn’t matter to the six Moosers – they had the experiences they remember most fondly down south.

Charlie beams when he speaks of their time in Georgia. “Everyone’s got a picture of the south in their heads: all guns and shootin’ and hicks and cowboys,” he says. “We found that and more, but not in the way you’d think.

Everyone just wanted to wish us well, and tell us their stories about the times they’d been on the road. Southern hospitality is alive and well.

“Sure, you're confronted with some serious fundamental differences of opinion between people from the States and us from Australia. But you kind of just go along with it. Like, they couldn’t fathom that we don’t have guns in Australia – that you can’t go hop along to the store and buy a gun.”

I asked Matt to tell me the best thing he saw on the road. The rest of the Moosers had talked about Horseshoe Bend, or the Grand Canyon, or the desert rolling by the window, or even the skyline of New York City. But the most beautiful sight of Matt’s trip? “Her name was Hannah. She had blue eyes, blonde hair and a shotgun in her truck. And her parents fed us home made icecream in a state park just outside Augusta.”

Banff, Canada Idaho, new Pocatello K-Mart car park, Richfield, Idaho Horseshoe Bend scenic overlook, Lake Powell, in northern Arizona Mistletoe State Park, Georgia

Banff, Canada

Lindsay: We bought the bus in Calgary and drove it back to Banff, where it sat for the next three months while we converted throughout the Canadian winter.

Matt: I remember coming home that night, and there was a big yellow bus on the street in front of our house. I don’t think you could have wiped the smile off my face for a good while after that.

Olivia: I was assigned one task when I got there, and that was to clean all of the windows. The bus has a fair few of them...

Idaho, near Pocatello

Charlie: A gasket on the water pump blew in Idaho, so we were towed to this tiny town to get the bus fixed. It took the guy about six hours, but he ended up only charging us for about two of them. Absolute legend. He had a cigarette hanging from his mouth the whole time. Quintessential small town mechanic.We were so happy/lucky to only lose half the day, and still make it to Coachella in time.

K-Mart car park, Richfield, Idaho

Giant American shopping malls in the middle of nowhere have giant American car parks that stretch for miles. There’s always a corner where the crusty road-trippers in their caravans and RVs circle their wagons; and on the mad rush down from Banff to Coachella, it was here where Project Moose bunked down for the night, with the wonderful and wacky weirdos who tend to congregate.

Horseshoe Bend scenic overlook, Lake Powell, in northern Arizona

Most of the Project Moosers agree that this was the most beautiful moment of their trip: standing on the edge of a 1000 foot canyon, no barriers between them and the expanse of air, gazing over the massive U-turn in the Ohio River, watching masses of water slide slowly by.

Mistletoe State Park, Georgia

Chris: We were staying in Mistletoe and these ladies driving past in a golf buggy stopped, and asked if they could have a look inside. They were so impressed they said that they would be back that night to pick us all up to visit their trailer, meet their families and share in some home-made ice cream. True to their word they came back with a convoy of golf buggies and took us to their little community of trailers, and we spent a great evening with these gun-loving, camouflage-wearing, tobacco-chewing and absolutely lovely ‘rednecks’.

Click on the markers
Part Four

The Death Drive

Freud had to invent the term “death drive” to explain what his pleasure principle couldn’t: that people sometimes put themselves in danger on purpose, feeling an attraction to death that cannot be understood in utilitarian terms. Sometimes people take risks because it makes them feel alive.

Sure, the Moosers weren’t actively chasing death, but they sure as hell weren’t staying at home either: not staying in their cushy jobs, not staying landlocked and stuck in the lockdown mentality that Australians can sometimes possess, in a country proud of its comfort and calm.

“Death” can be the fantasy that drives us: we may not really want to die, but death is the ultimate alternative, and it’s the only inevitable one. And so we spend most of our time and energy acting as if it isn’t, and as if we have the power to stop it. We act as if we can live forever, and even our risk-taking might be, in part, an effort to forget the fact that we know we can’t.

Maybe this is why the Moosers’ eyes light up when they recount the scariest and hairiest moments of their trip, like the few near-misses they had on the road. “The highways in Dallas were crazy,” Matt tells me. “There was this one occasion where some jackass decided to cut across about three lanes of traffic and in front of us. Lindsay had to really slam on the brakes, and shit went everywhere. Cards were flying, apples went hurling. Olivia went flying forward on top of Charlie and then I went flying forwards on top of both of them. The brakes locked up and we got so freaking close to cleaning up the cars in front of us. Luckily no one got hurt and nothing was broken, but it sure did feel like it was all about to go horribly wrong.”

Olivia recounts another near-incident on the road. “We were in Arizona and drove past what was a pretty serious car accident. A guy had mounted the side bank of the road, flipped three times, yet somehow managed to walk out unscathed. If we had been driving through there about 30 seconds beforehand, that car would have landed on us. It's times like those when you realise how a situation could have turned out so differently, how chance always plays a huge part.”

"I've never heard a gun go off in the distance before. Needless to say, we never walked down the street for a soda again."

Perhaps the scariest — and riskiest — moment was when the Moosers found themselves in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “We stayed in this RV park,” Matt says, “and I skated down to the nearest liquor store with Chris to get some booze. We noticed we were getting some 'You don’t belong here, vanillas' looks in the street, but didn’t think too much of it. We only found out later that that area is known widely as ‘The War Zone’.”

Gangs, drugs and violence is rampant in The War Zone; Project Moose were eventually told it’s where 70% of the entire city’s crime occurs. But they were all oblivious to the danger at first – until they woke up to gunshots in the middle of the night. “We were reassured that it isn’t the gangs you need to worry about in The War Zone, but mainly the people messed up on drugs," Olivia says. "Of course, the fact that the police force was right then being investigated for shooting too many people was of little comfort.”

“I’ve never heard a gun go off in the distance before,” says Chris. “Needless to say we never walked down the street for a soda again. For the rest of our time there, we ordered cabs.”   

So why do Australians of this age pack in their careers, their studies, and their relationships, and put themselves in danger? The Moosers spent thousands on refitting the bus, and on the trip itself; they had enough money for planes and trains and sexy, shiny Mustangs. What is this yearning for experience? Is it a social pressure? Have these six Toowoombans lived too-safe lives, and now feel the need to do something more risky? Do they subconsciously think that they owe themselves or the world to blow cash and time on something that isn't advantageous to their careers or life-plan? Are they gazing to the future, growing scared of the middle-class boring bozo that stares back from twenty years hence, and doing everything to postpone it?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of Australian residents travelling overseas for trips of less than a year has grown 320% in the last two decades. This is equivalent to 31 trips overseas for every 100 Australian residents in 2009-10, up from 12 in 1989-90. Sure, this could be explained as a combination of globalisation and a comparatively high average wealth in Australia, but is it not also pertinent to ask whether Australians are perhaps seeking something they can’t find in their own backyards: danger, risk, the tingle and thrill of the near-miss?

David Beirman, the Senior Lecturer of Tourism at Sydney’s UTS believes so: “For Australians of all ages, but especially among the young, risk-taking is seen as an integral part of the travel experience. Ernest Hemingway inspired adventure travellers around the world with his tales of travelling on the edge.”

By some kind of definition then, travelling is a kind of insanity. And maybe the Moosers really are lunatics! Maybe all road-trippers are, in a way. But maybe such lunacy is excellent, and forward-thinking: intrinsically invaluable to the making of a more rounded and empathetic person.

The word ‘lunatic’ stems from the Latin ‘luna’, meaning moon – it was once believed that moon cycles caused intermittent insanity. It was also believed the very concept of travelling to the moon was insane — but landing on the moon created legends of astronauts, ones whose names we can recite from memory. The point? Adventuring is lunacy. Lunacy creates legends. Legends of places. Legends of times. Legends of people.

In some small way, the six Project Moose friends embraced one modern form of lunacy, then ratcheted it up a few notches. Isn’t there some part of you reading this piece right now, looking at these photos, and wishing you were currently doing something as preposterous?

Adventuring is
Lunacy creates
Part Five

Adventures In Time

Henry Miller, in his 1957 essay/memoir/novel Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, described the joys and hardships that come from escaping the “air conditioned nightmare” of modern life. In it he wrote that a “destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.” We can slow down time, stretch it out, by being in new places, by meeting new people. Never go anywhere and never meet anyone and you can be sure your life will go faster.

When our intrepid Moosers eventually sold The Spruce Moose — "to a couple of girls that are from Toowoomba, actually" — its odometer showed they had travelled exactly 16,555 kilometres. But when they did their own calculations on their phones and maps, the Moosers tallied up their total trip at 15,026 km. How to account for the missing 1,529 kilometres? Were they all just eaten up on nonessential laps of the towns the Moosers visited, or part of some secret adventure? Or can we simply chalk it up to numerical miscalculation? Perhaps it’s better to leave these miles to mystery, to the open winding road on which six brash young Toowoombans drove a bus they named The Spruce Moose around the USA.

Or perhaps these 950 miles are actually a measurement of time, time they gained or they snatched back, time that Charlie, Olivia, Chris, Gerard, Lindsay and Matt spent in the moment: the 87 days, the 2088 hours, the 125,280 minutes these Moosers spent writing their names in the metaphorical sand, marking themselves as legends.

The Project Moose team put a lot of effort into rebuilding the old school bus, but legendary travel doesn't always need to be that difficult. If you're feeling all inspired to travel the globe after hearing their story, let Contiki do all the hard work for you! They have loads of epic road trips options across America and Europe, so you can enjoy the freedom of travel without all of the hassle. Start planning your next adventure now and create your own Contiki Legend.

We've partnered with Contiki Holidays
to bring you incredible travel stories
from around the world.

Words by

Photos by Project Moose

Design by Vanessa Ackland

Build by Esteban Aguilar

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