One roof, four wheels, endless travel: Adventures on the Denali Bus

Allison Royal

Mechanical engineering senior Alex King may not have a house, but he has a home. He has all he needs — a couch, dining table and bed — just not an address.

King lives in a bus.

Alex King and Alden Simmer/Courtesy Photo

Parked in Morro Bay, California, the bus has been an on-and-off home to King and his friend, mechanical engineering senior Alden Simmer. The two purchased the bus last summer and are constantly improving the vehicle to make their home more comfortable.

Ultimately, the pair plans to drive the bus to the tallest mountain in North America: Denali, the inspiration for their home’s unique name, the Denali Bus.

Life on wheels
“I’ve learned to be more adaptable to new situations and hurdles that get thrown at you,” King said. “There’s always a way around whatever comes at you. It’s a bus, but it’s a metaphor for real life.”

Clara Knapp/Courtesy Photo

King is no stranger to life on wheels. Two years ago, he lived in a van he converted himself.

“It’s Learn by Doing I guess, but in a different way from classes at Cal Poly,” King said.

King and Simmer parked the bus at friends’ houses during fall quarter, but recently moved the bus out to Morro Bay after the city of San Luis Obispo issued them multiple 72-hour warnings to move their bus.

“We probably got, I don’t know, 10 warnings,” King said. “There were a lot.”

King grew up building and remodeling different machinery with his family in Trout Lake, Washington. Now, King has graduated to building solar panels on top of the bus.

“It’s more than just a school bus [to me],” King said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in it — learned every in and out of it. Put a lot of work in it, so yeah, it has a lot of sentimental value.”

Bus life has some cons, such as parking and the undesirable gas mileage of a large vehicle. However, King said the challenges are worth it.

Simmer recalled a time when their bus broke down after a long trip to Mount Shasta. It cost them $400 to tow the bus to a nearby s hop and $1,300 for a repaired injector pump.

“You can still get stuck anywhere in the bus, but you still have a place to live,” Simmer said. “There’s comfort in the chaos.”

The two say their $7,000 investment in the Denali Bus and its renovations will pay off financially in the long run.

“Whether you live in it for a day or a month or 10 years, it’s a cool learning process,” King said. “Go for it.”

Before the rise of the Denali Bus, Simmer befriended King in a chemistry class during their sophomore year at Cal Poly. The next weekend, the two went on an impromptu camping trip to Mount Whitney where they first discussed the possibility of buying a bus.

More than just a home
Simmer said bus life taught him that less is more, and that memories are more valuable than closet space.

“This will probably be one of the biggest parts of my life,” Simmer said. “Today, I don’t know what will happen next, but I’ll look back on this and cherish it.”

Video by Maggie Hitchings

Despite the benefits, such as the mobility and potential to save rent money in an expensive college town, Simmer said others should see the bigger picture.

“There’s a lot of glamour involved in the Instagrams of all these buses and vans whereas in like reality, sure it’s cozy sometimes, but you’re missing a lot of things you get in a house,” Simmer said.

The bus gave Simmer more than just shelter, but also life lessons.

“I feel like in a lot of our lives, we’re afraid to make mistakes and I sure was a lot,” Simmer said. “I’d be afraid and I wouldn’t want to do something on the bus or put something on the bus because I was afraid that I would mess up on it and Alex kind of taught me, ‘Hey, it’s okay to mess up, but you can keep going,’ and that’s part of the process. You’re gonna mess up. You’re gonna trip over something. You just gotta get back up and keep building.”

Sharing the Denali Bus
Forestry and natural resources senior Sienna Streamfellow first experienced the Denali Bus for herself when she accompanied King and Simmer on their eventful road trip to Mount Shasta.

“I think it’s awesome because it makes you realize what you truly care about and what’s important to you,” Streamfellow said.

Streamfellow is no stranger to alternative living. She grew up on a boat with minimal belongings and space. Her time on the Denali Bus inspired her decision to drive to South America after graduating from Cal Poly.

“It’s nice because it just reminds you like, ‘Oh, I really don’t need all this other stuff in my room,’” Streamfellow said. “That’s fun, but this is what I need to actually have a good life and be truly happy.”

Liberal arts and engineering studies senior Petra Knapp, along with five other friends, joined King and Simmer on the Denali Bus for a mountain biking trip in Santa Cruz last fall.

“Their bus is so rad,” Knapp said. “The bus also attracts tons of travelers and those with outgoing curiosity. It brings on a greater sense of freedom than renting a stationary room.”

The Denali Bus has inspired a number of people, even strangers. On a road trip, King and Simmer parked the Denali Bus in a Safeway parking lot in Portland when an intrigued mother and daughter asked if they could come inside to check out the bus.

“The daughter saw [the bus] and said, ‘This is exactly what I want to do!’ and we saw her on Instagram two months later with a van of her own, so it was kind of cool seeing the passing on of mobile life,” King said.

King and Simmer plan to gather friends and head on a three-month road trip this summer before eventually heading to Denali.

Alex King and Alden Simmer/Courtesy Photo

“[The bus] makes our imaginations run wild with the countless adventures that are now so much more than possible,” King said.