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Stories

 

 

Two Art Nomads Take Off in a Bus Named Towanda

Bree McKenna

As told to Middleouest

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Instead of sinking their meager monthly earnings into rent or a mortgage, the multimedia artists Troy Chebs and Austin LeMoine bought a 35-foot-long bus. Where other people might have seen the scrap of metal as junkyard bound, they imagined a home and art studio with warm, wood-worked interiors and state-of-the-art solar paneling. “The bus would eliminate our big monthly costs and be a huge challenge, and we’d actually own the space as opposed to an apartment—so it would be an investment,” says LeMoine, who studied business economics and public policy at Indiana University. “Once we started daydreaming and sketching interiors, we were hooked.”

Deciding to create a solar-powered art bus is one thing; cruising the open road without a breakdown is another. A few months ago, the pair—who’ve known each other since high school in the Chicago suburbs and now create multimedia and sculpture under the moniker Noblesavage—decided their experimental ride was ready to make a journey out West. They chronicled their first big adventure, and a few misadventures, for Middleouest.


From Illinois to Idaho with a few stops (and hiccups) in between.

DAY 1:

Departure.

Being on the road does not feel real after so much planning and construction. Two plus years of work have finally come to fruition, and we are headed towards Paonia, Colorado, where we will turn a 35-foot bus into a photovoltaic-powered workspace and home.

Spirits are at an all time high as we roll away from Chicago. And then . . . at an all time low when the bus unexpectedly dies and coasts to the shoulder near Towanda, Illinois. We have made it a whopping 128 miles from our starting point.

We will spend the next four hours on the shoulder trying to diagnose the problem and avoid a tow with state troopers lurking nearby. After considering, and disproving, many mechanical theories, we manage to limp the bus up the nearest exit ramp, park behind a gas station and buy beer just as the sun sets. The quote, "Adventure begins when everything goes wrong” floats in the back of our minds.

We sleep uneasily.

Left: Diesel Joe working by lantern light to change all six of the bus' injector lines. Right: Austin on his way back from the nearest gas station with six quarts of transmission fluid.

Day 2:

Bikes are essential for bus living in many ways, especially when you break down. The next morning, Austin takes his to find six quarts of transmission fluid.

We decide to make a go at a repair shop seven miles away. We can only get the bus to move at idle speeds; any load on the engine shuts it down immediately. We make it three miles down a country blacktop road before the vehicle croaks and will not start.

Our biggest fear of calling a tow truck become a reality, as we watch the tires slowly sink deeper into the thin, hot road between two cornfields.

Ed also lives on a bus that is outfitted with solar, and he has a soft spot for helping ‘young hippies do weird shit.’

Day 7:

Five days later, we are equipped with a new Electronic Control Module and back on the road. Repairs have been costly, and we’ve lost a significant chunk of time. But after stagnating, the forward progress feels great.

We pull out of Bloomington, Illinois, grinning, with the bus running like a champ. We make it another 120 miles before smelling diesel and pulling into a rest area near Galesburg, Illinois. Fuel is gushing out of the back like an open hydrant, and we both damn near cry.

Illinois does not want us to leave.

We have broken an injector line, and, upon closer inspection, on the cusp of breaking three more. We cannot afford a tow and have no way to get into town. We also do not have the specialty wrenches needed for swapping injector lines. But, luckily for us, we have incredible friends. "Diesel Joe” volunteers to drive the parts out Friday after work and help us make the line swap.

 
 
 
 

Day 10:

We waste the next three days getting poison ivy and falling into rivers. Finally, Joe arrives, and we work by lantern light in a parking lot from 10:30 p.m. until 4:30 a.m., changing all six injector lines and polishing off a case of mechanic fuel in the process. We are slaphappy, buzzed and riding an endorphin high as the sun starts coming up Saturday morning. In a way, the experience feels like a weird, road life initiation ceremony. After four hours of sleep, we sign our souls over to Joe and continue heading West for Paonia.

Day 12:

Having paid our dues, the bus runs perfectly as we head west. We link up with friends a few days later in Denver who swiftly escort us via bike to a bus parking spot they’d scoped out on the southwest side of the city. Now more than a week behind schedule, we scrap all plans of seeing family and make a break for the mountains the following afternoon.

Waiting for nighttime temps to cool down the radiator in Evergreen, Colorado.

Day 13:

It’s 95 degrees, our radiator is on the back corner of the bus and we’re climbing up one of the most consistently steep portions of I-70. Watching our water temp closely, we pass a handful of hot trucks and even see a radiator cap explode before joining the overheated engine club three quarters of the way up the grade.

Having limited options, we decide to go to bed early and wait for the cool mountain air before making another go at it. At 3 a.m., the air temp sits around 53 degrees, and the bus—we’ve now named it Towanda—cruises beautifully towards Western Colorado.

A cool mountain morning on I-70 in Colorado.

Day 14:

We touch down in Paonia late in the afternoon. The repair-free driving has given us much needed peace of mind, and we are thrilled to finally be on the cusp of bus completion. We park up on a hill—not far from downtown but still somehow secluded—in a lot that slightly resembles a junkyard in Mexico. On one side of the bus is a workshop topped with solar panels and filled with batteries, and on the other is a railroad, used by the local mine to ship coal down the valley. An energy face-off. We will be enlisting in the renewable camp.

Uncle Ed’s solar emporium in Paonia, Colorado

Day 15:

The next morning we finally meet Uncle Ed: a sun drenched, upbeat social butterfly who has been on the front lines of photovoltaic advocacy and solar cooking more or less since its creation.

Ed also lives on a bus that is outfitted with solar, and he has a soft spot for helping “young hippies do weird shit.” We hit it off immediately, and start planning out our now crunched work week from the comfort of his swamp cooled bus.

We decide on the following setup:
    •    (5) 100 watt solar panels
    •    (6) 6V deep cycle batteries (we already had these)
    •    (1) charge controller
    •    (1) 1000 watt pure sine wave inverter

Left: Panel install day at the shop with Ed, Kristen and Troy. Inset: Ed/Sensei and his most recent bus from an excerpt from “The Sustainable Underground."

Our basic plan: build tiltable aluminum racks for our solar panels, and mount them to the roof of the bus. These solar panels will charge batteries stowed below the bus, which will then provide electricity in the form of 12V DC directly to appliances like our chest freezer, and 110V AC, via the inverter, to wall outlets installed inside.

Thanks to Ed, the next week and a half in Paonia is a blend of work and play. Days in the shop are sprinkled with stories, lessons, shit talking, beers, jokes, solar wisdom and the occasional "field trip." Despite being faced by a  large amount of work in the short period of time, stress is almost nonexistent. Viva la Ed.

On weekends, or when the sun makes it too hot to work, we spend time swimming in culverts, picking cherries, drinking at a church-turned-brewery, hiking the Black Canyon and even spinning a few soul 45’s late night at the local radio station.

Ed and Austin splitting wires, tug-of-war style.


Day 27:

With the help of some new solar-skilled friends, we finish installing and wiring the complete 12V DC and 120V AC photovoltaic system at 10:30PM, only four hours before we need to leave town and drive I-70 back to Snowmass.  As a celebration of our new power source, we sit back and soak in Del Ray Wilson’s LP “Feel Good All Over.” Ask any audiophile: Solar powered turntables just sound better.

We are a bit emotionally torn as we pull out of town around 3 a.m. Feeling incredible about our two-year project being complete, we feel, at the same time, a bit of separation anxiety as we part ways with a town and group of humans we’ve become deeply attached to. See you soon, Paonia.

Bus, meet Ranch. Finally, we're parked outside of Anderson Ranch Arts Center.

Day 28:

No time for showers. One long drive and three bus transfers later, we make it to the ranch. We’ve both been awarded sculpture scholarships and given the opportunity to work under two artists we really admire—Andy Buck and Tom Loeser—at the gorgeous Anderson Ranch Art Center, a mountain art mecca.

ARAC truly lives up to its reputation. It is run by a kind and passionate staff who inherently see through the dirt, grime and stench we’ve accumulated during the solar install sprint.

Nestled in the heart of the Roaring Fork Valley, the ranch is surrounded by a conifer covered range and bordered by a small stream that runs along the west side of the property. The shops and studios are constructed from sections of old homestead-style cabins, gathered from the surrounding range, and outfitted with electricity, plumbing, and bay doors.


Day 33:

Wildlife rumors ring true. A black bear smashes a window on campus our second night.


Day 34:

After saying our goodbyes and making future bus plans with new friends, we are ready to decompress. We spend our last night 12,000 ft up, camping with a small group of friends and family near the top of Independence Pass.

Now that we have a battery bank to take care of, our next road objective needs to be food. A freezer full of frozen food requires much less energy to stay cool than an empty one, so we reach out to Cody, a friend-turned-fishing guide and start heading northwest towards Idaho in search of trout.

Perfectly parked: We're five miles outside of Ketchum, Idaho.

Day 36:

Neither of us has ever set foot in Idaho, and after being in Colorado, we are fascinated by the smooth, dune-esque shape of the mountains in the southeastern part of the state. After a few reunion beers at Lefty's, Cody leads us out to a perfect cliffside spot overlooking Trail Creek. The sun is down when we parked, so we don’t notice the treehouse feel of our vantage point until the next morning. Choice.

Left: Troy in the Ketchum Kitchen, looking down on our fishing spot while prepping dinner. Right: Enjoying roof tacos in Stanley, Idaho.

Day 37:

The next morning, we scramble down the cliff and fish the creek. Apparently our spot is a wild one—deer, elk, coyote, wolf and moose tracks are everywhere. We catch two rainbow trout and only fall in the river once. It is a complete success, and it feels great to not to have any pressing time obligations.

We spend the night having an impromptu bus party and meeting friends of friends, many of whom work for a local startup called First Lite. Beer-fueled negotiations lead to coffee-for-game swaps the next morning, and before noon, we have a freezer full of duck, venison steaks, elk sausage, wahoo and ahi tuna.

Cooking duck in Wallowa Whitman National Forest, Oregon.

Day 39:

We head out on I-75 and spend a night along the Salmon River soaking in the Sawtooth range. The bus climbs the pass without incident and our newly-mounted solar roof racks feel solid despite the high winds. Thanks to the sun, our new food cache is thoroughly frozen by morning, and we break camp after an egg breakfast.

From Idaho, we continue to camp our way towards the northwest, heading towards a wedding in Olympic National Forest. Post ceremony and celebration we will have a completely open schedule for the first time since leaving Chicago, which means it’s finally time to put that mobile studio to use.

Although it’s been the topic of many brainstorm sessions, creating art and finding work on the road is still an untested theory. But that income adventure excites us. As they say, “variety is the spice of life,” and we feel the same way about work. More variety, more learning, more challenge, and more fun. It’s time to get busy.

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Austin LeMoine and Troy Chebs are multimedia artists who do projects for hire. Drop them a line at noblesavage.us@gmail.com