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PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — When Chelsea Rogers and Tanner Starmer rode the yellow school bus as children, it likely never crossed their minds that more than two decades later, they’d be living in one.
That’s right. Meet Eleanor, also known as “Ellie the Skoolie,” the 12-year-old 170-square-foot bus they’ve spent that last nine months gutting, reconstructing and renovating into their dream home on wheels. The interior appears out of an HGTV show, and its character and charisma mirrors that of the newly married couple.
Rogers and Starmer, of Portsmouth, are set to take off by the end of September for their three-year journey that will essentially bring them to all corners of the country, with elongated stops in between. Their dog Oakley will join them.
Everything about their newfound lifestyle is intentional. It’s about reducing waste, increasing connection and living more simply — paired with some pretty amazing water, desert and mountain views.
“You take away the unnecessary stuff in your life so you can really focus more on the things you love,” Starmer said. “So even though we’ll be living in a small space, we’re going to these beautiful mountains and coastlines where we’re going to be spending a lot more time outdoors. We’re very active. We like to ski, hike, bike.”
The tiny living idea originated from Rogers’ and Starmer’s shared passion for sailing, and grew from there.
“The layout of the bus is really important because we got our inspiration from sailboats,” said Rogers, 31. “We both sail here in Portsmouth, and actually this whole idea of moving onto a bus started because we wanted to move onto a sailboat. We wanted to be cruisers. Do winters in Key West and summers on the coast of Maine. But we’re not the most seasoned sailors, we’re both pretty green. We love it, but we’re not comfortable enough to move our entire life onto a sailboat.”
“Maybe later in life,” Starmer, 29, added. The couple said they’ve come across many other “tiny-homers” who have also drawn inspiration from sailing.
And so the couple began searching for other ways to channel tiny. Last December, they purchased Ellie from a dealer in Brentwood who sells old school buses, vans and trolleys. Ellie is a retired school bus with 123,000 miles on her, equipped with a Caterpillar diesel engine. She’s expected to run until 400,000 to 500,000 miles.
They completely gutted Ellie and began from scratch starting in January. Much of which has taken place in a friend’s back yard off Islington Street. Rogers and Starmer hired no help to renovate Ellie; they did it entirely themselves with support of friends and family.
The couple replaced the standard bus driver’s seat with a captain’s swivel chair, one they found in a 1960s camper at a salvage yard. Rogers made a leather cover for it using excess material from a shoe company.
“One of our ideas in doing all this is we really wanted to salvage old stuff and recycle because it kind of goes with the whole idea of living tiny,” Rogers said. Everything is getting a second life, she said.
The counter tops are 100-year-old cherry wood with a matte finish and live edge, given to Rogers and Starmer by a contractor friend who cut down the tree in New Hampshire with his dad a few years ago.
Ellie even has a miniature wood stove made specifically for boats and RVs, able to fit a few small pieces of wood.
Tiles of various blues cover one corner wall, handmade by Starmer’s aunt, who is an artist. The shower floor is lined with the couple’s sea glass collection gathered from Big Sur, Bermuda and Oregon.
The bus has four solar panels, LED lighting, a water tank and a composting toilet. They replaced the folding bus door with an actual house door, equipped with a digital keypad for security. They eventually want to build a roof deck, to enjoy the view from atop the bus.
Rogers described Ellie’s style as “modern rustic, highlighting natural elements mixed with white, clean and sharp.”
The plan is to work seasonal jobs in attractive areas they can stay at for a few months at a time. Starmer already has a job lined up in Aspen, Colorado, as a ski instructor for this winter. But on the way there, they plan to hit the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park, the city of Nashville, the Ozarks and northern New Mexico, just to name a few.
For the summer months, they’ll likely head to Whitefish, Montana, where Starmer will work for the forest service. Rogers will continue her event planning and interior design endeavors.
“We’re sort of chasing that seasonal resort area,” Starmer said. “But we don’t want to tie ourselves down to a set plan. We want to meet a lot of people and network, so if an opportunity arises…”
Rogers and Starmer will park Ellie at “a mixture of campgrounds and people’s houses that we know along the way.” Through social media networking in the “tiny” community, they’ve already been able to create relationships that will serve them well on their travels.
The couple eloped last month in Ireland as a prerequisite to their trip, and also a mirror of their new minimalist lifestyle. “Minimalism, sustainability, less waste,” Rogers said.
Rogers laughed that when she and Starmer first moved in together, they lived in a ranch-style house in Henniker, then in a two-bedroom apartment on State Street in Portsmouth, and most recently a bedroom in a friend’s house. Moving into Ellie is naturally the next step; “we keep going down instead of up.”
When naming Ellie, Rogers and Starmer knew they wanted an “old name.” They thought of Bertha, but when Ellie as a nickname for Eleanor worked perfectly as “Ellie the Skoolie,” they were sold.
Rogers said the goal is to spend about three years on the road and then evaluate next steps.
“It’s been a lot of work, and it’s even more than we thought,” said Starmer, who is a contractor and studied forestry in college. His skills certainly helped in renovating Ellie. But they’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, with days until departure now in the single digits.
“We’re not just going to be by ourselves in the woods,” Starmer said. “We’re looking to connect with communities and other people doing this.”