Steve Yocom and Jordan Meeks are living what many people would call a dream life.
The couple lives and works on the road in their converted 1993 International 3800 school bus they call the Wildernest along with their two German Shepherds, Cain and Sage.
At the start of 2020, while many were faced with layoffs and quarantine, Yocom and Meeks landed a deal to appear on Backpacker's "Get Out More TV" series. In it, they'd travel across the US in the bus, stopping in various destinations to test gear in different environments while filming it all for the show. In 2021, the series took them everywhere from Maine to Washington.
As an outdoor photographer, Yocom is no stranger to the road life. Prior to meeting Meeks, he spent nine months living in his Tacoma and traveling around the American West while freelancing for various media outlets and brands. The two met during the winter while Yocom was recovering from a recent accident and spent a few months as pen pals before they finally managed to go on a long-awaited date. Shortly after that, the pair spent around six months together in the truck. "We've been glued together since!" Yocom says.
When the truck trip came to an end, Yocom immediately started looking for what might come next. He hadn't paid rent in nearly a year and wasn't keen to start. After seeing a school bus conversion for the first time at a vanlife rally, Yocom joked to Meeks that maybe a larger vehicle was the logical progression. The two had only been dating for half a year, but Meeks was a step ahead of him: prior to meeting Yocom, she'd nearly made the "skoolie" jump with a friend, but ultimately decided against it.
But when Yocom pitched the idea, Meeks was all in. They began searching Facebook Marketplace for a suitable vehicle and eventually found just the thing: a 208-square-foot DT 466 diesel-powered behemoth for $3,000. They bought it a few days later.
Converting the old school bus to a liveable space took roughly one year. "The build probably restored my faith in humanity," Yocom says. "We had so many incredible things happen and take place that just kind of proved that this was the move." Friends offered them a place to park. Older folks in the neighborhood lent them tools. Neither of them had previous training in construction or how to use power tools, so they spent their down time attending YouTube University (aka researching and watching building tutorials online).
A year later, they emerged from the DIY school bus conversion project with a fully outfitted home on wheels, complete with a queen bed, a wood-burning stove, an oven and a fridge, and a full bathroom with a shower. The interior, complete with wood paneling and flooring plus a stone backsplash around the wood stove, is reminiscent of a small cabin in the mountains. Perhaps the best part, though, is that Yocom no longer has to hunch while walking around his home—they chopped off the roof and lifted it up for added height.
"We are proof that sometimes if you jump, you can learn to fly."
Now, with the build behind them, the couple is confidently capable. As Yocom puts it. "We are definitely proof that sometimes if you jump, you can learn to fly." For Meeks, the experience was one of personal growth, too. "From a small blonde female's perspective of [previously] not being able to do these stereotypical manly things, [it] has made me feel very empowered, honestly."
Bus dwelling proved a bit of an adjustment from living in the truck. Navigating mountain roads in a 35-foot school bus isn't quite the same as driving a Tacoma (the couple does tow the truck and a motorcycle behind the bus, which gives them the ability to access just about anywhere without sacrificing the larger vehicle's comforts—though no doubt drags down gas mileage).
For Yocom, there were times when it was almost a bit too comfortable. After months of truck life, which sometimes involved sleeping underneath the vehicle to keep himself and his dogs dry, Yocom says the comforts of the bus almost detract from the roughing-it-in-the-outdoors-life he was used to. But finding that grit is still possible.
And in the long run, Yocom and Meeks say, living in a converted bus allows them to stay out longer without getting burned out on road life. The couple tends to move a lot during summer months and stay put in the winter, though if it were up to Yocom they'd park in each place for about a month to give themselves the chance to actually come to know it.
But just because the Wildernest is more comfortable doesn't mean life on the road is always smooth sailing.
At the height of a summer heat wave, which had already knocked out their fridge, the two ventured to a favorite location in northern California. Then a wildfire broke out nearby. "There was an ongoing anxiety because it seemed like everywhere we went was under some sort of climate disaster," Yocom says. They had no choice but to evacuate. "Places [have] become old friends that have provided me with so much in this life, and it's hard to see old friends hurting."
As people who travel both for work and for their own enjoyment, Meeks and Yocom have seen their fair share of the US and have figured out how to make the lifestyle work. They camp primarily on public land, which is free, and take pride in caring for the places that house them. "As an American, public lands are ours," Yocom says. "We would never be able to do what we do if we were to stay in [designated] campgrounds all the time."
"We couldn't afford that, for sure," Meeks agrees.
Even in states where public land is few and far between, the two have found slivers of hope in humanity by way of generous locals offering them a place to park for a night—or a month. "We've got places to stay for the rest of our lives, Yocom says. "There's this magic out there that you don't get unless you go."
"We have this rule that we believe that everybody we come in contact with could possess some sort of magic that could better our lives, so we just keep that open-mindedness," Yocom continues. "And the rule is that if we don't get magic from them, maybe it's our turn to give out some to them. And that's a very rewarding way to live."
Like the many who found themselves working from home and in close quarters with their partners during the pandemic, Meeks and Yocom had to adjust to doing everything together. The two work together on the Backpacker series but maintain individual projects, too.
Luckily, the two balance one another well. "We've kind of learned that you're better off with help. Jordan has been a really awesome addition because she excels in a lot of things that I suck at and she stays on top of things that I might miss," Yocom says. "And now we're growing together." In addition to working with Yocom, Meeks also oversees a youth program in Asheville, North Carolina, helping young adults learn valuable life skills and preparing them for a better future.
The key is balancing work and personal time, and recognizing that being around each other all the time isn't the same as spending intentional time together. "I think a lot of people take their partners for granted and at the end of life, you don't wish you made more money, you wish you'd spent more time with people that you love. And we get to really do that," Meeks says.
Road life can be seen an equalizer of sorts—you can be from anywhere and any circumstances, but once you're on the road with everyone else, that's what matters most. Sure, you can do it alone, in a vintage VW bus, DIY RV, or $250k Mercedes Sprinter—one of the greatest joys of living in a van or bus or truck is that there's no rulebook—but being part of something larger is (maybe more than) half the point.