From Homeless to Treehouse on Wheels: A Couple's Epic Shuttle Bus Makeover - The Wayward Home (2024)

  • Kae Orlando and Alex Johnson live full-time in a treehouse-inspired shuttle bus conversion with their senior dogs, Kaya and Bubba.
  • Full-time artist Kae runs an Etsy jewelry shop from the bus, while Alex picks up fun jobs along the way.
  • Despite facing regular vehicle breakdowns, the couple loves living the bus life on Tree in the PNW.

Facing housing insecurity might have been the best thing that ever happened to Kae Orlando, from Corona Del Mar, California, and Alex Johnson, from Philadelphia.

“The place we were renting from a friend was being foreclosed and we didn’t qualify for renting elsewhere due to our ‘aggressive breed’ pups and limited budget;” – explains Kae – “we were left homeless living in our truckbed, in a hand-me-down tent, while we worked in restaurants to save money.”

The couple dreamed of living in a treehouse in the Pacific Northwest. So, rather than staying in the rat race, hoping to afford a home one day, they decided to make their dream come true, albeit nomadically.

They saved up enough to buy an old bus they found on Craigslist. The vehicle only cost them $8,000; it’s a 2007 Ford E450.

Tree used to be a San Mateo County, California, shuttle bus. It came with roughly 150k miles – a low number for a diesel engine. “We moved in the day we bought it with sleeping bags,” says Kae. The vehicle was stripped down to the bare bones, so the couple slept on the original rubber flooring for some time.

Turning the shuttle bus into the treehouse of their dreams took them over five years and around $25,000 – an investment of about $5,000 per year.

“It’ll forever be a work in progress and will never feel ‘finished’ to us, but she’s home” comments Kae.

Table of Contents

How They Turned a Shuttle Bus Into a Treehouse

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With limited funds, the couple mostly used pre-loved and recycled materials for the conversion. They built the kitchen on a vintage piece of furniture from Mexico and used an old dresser from a yard sale to create the countertop and wardrobe.

Kae is a full-time artist, so she poured her creativity and skills into the build, decorating every detail using her gorgeous nature-inspired style. The result is stunning.

Every piece of furniture has a story. “All the tree branches [you see around the bus] are from winter storms we’ve survived. Most of them nearly landed on the bus!” recalls Kae. The boho soft furnishing, faux ivy, and tongue and groove finish give the interior a treehouse vibe.

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Inside Tree is a double bed, a large kitchen, a workshop area, and a lounge.

The couple wanted to enjoy the views from their home on wheels as much as possible, so they kept the original 360° emergency windows and added a big skylight on the roof. These allow a lot of natural light in, which comes in handy in the dark and rainy PNW winters.

The bed is at the back. It’s a queen-size platform on hydraulic hinges that lifts to reveal Kae’s business supplies. It’s the pups’ favorite spot to chill out during the day.

The kitchen is at the front of the vehicle, by a set of doors. These open up completely so Kae can gaze at the views while she cooks. The couple installed a 17-inch oven with a three-burner range, a deep sink with an adjustable faucet, a chest fridge/freezer, 30 gallons of fresh water, and a 5-gallon gray water storage tank. They can bake and cook up a storm daily.

Beyond the kitchen is Kae’s workspace. This comprises a large desk with a big window and plenty of lighting. It’s one of her favorite spots on the bus because it allows her to unleash her creativity.

Kae and Alex also built a lounge area by the bed, which hides a composting toilet. There’s no shower on board Tree, but the couple set up an outdoor shower with a pop-up tent and a propane-powered water heater. They can have hot water showers in privacy while keeping the bus nice and moisture-free.

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To keep the temperature comfortable inside Tree, Kae and Alex installed an elevated wood-burning stove. In the summer, the windows and skylight create a nice airflow, so they don’t need AC.

Under the stove hearth, there are the pups’ beds, complete with memory foam beds, a little window, curtains, and a heated blanket. But the dogs’ favorite activity is birdwatching from bed – and snuggling with their humans, of course.

There’s also an electrical system on board. In the summer, a substantial solar system provides all the power the guys need. In the winter, when the days are shorter and there’s less light, they use a dual-fuel gas-propane generator.

Making The Bus Life Work

Kae and Alex live on the bus full-time, traveling around the Pacific Northwest.

Kae runs her own business, Nomadic Novelties Co, an Etsy shop selling Merry Mushrooms and nature-inspired miniatures from Tree. She hand-sculpts earrings, necklaces, and firelighter cases using clay. The shop is her full-time job now; it doesn’t make a lot, but it pays for much of their expenses.

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Alex picks up fun jobs, like carpentry and camp hosting, along the way and is Kae’s personal assistant at peak order times, during the holidays. The pups earn their keep by working as models for the Nomadic Novelties Instagram account.

Having shared a small apartment with a close friend before, the couple was used to living in a small home before moving onto the bus. “Being in a small space means we always know where everything is. Our pups are snuggled by our side, and an ever-changing view from the bed is our entertainment,” says Kae.

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The Challenges of Living in a Bus Full-time

But living on a bus isn’t always blissful. The main challenge the couple has encountered is breakdowns—old vehicles are bound to malfunction occasionally.

“In six years, we’ve spent over 16 months living in a tent due to our bus having mechanical issues,” explains Kae.

Breakdowns can be expensive: there are tow fees, replacement parts, and labor to pay. Because the couple travels around rural areas where the postal service is slower, repairs can take as long as five months to complete.

When the bus is at the mechanic’s, the couple sleeps in their tent to save on expenses. Kae keeps creating jewelry by baking it on a camp stove and collapsible oven.

“We found some of our favorite places by living in our tent through all the breakdowns” – says Kae – “this life is beautiful. We live by our mantra: ‘Slow is the way to go.’”

A Typical Day Living in a Converted Shuttle Bus

No day on Tree is the same. Kae and Alex spend some days getting lots of chores done in town. When Kae has lots of orders to fulfill, she hand-sculpts jewelry late into the night.

Most days the couple chats over a good cup of coffee in the morning, ensures they set time aside for a nice snuggle with the pups, and eats dinner outdoors as the sun sets—when it’s dry.

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Kae and Alex camp in State and National Parks, primitive camping, BLM land, forest service roads, parking lots, and pull-outs. They usually move every three to 14 days.

When they change camp spots they split up. Alex and Bubba drive the bus, while Kae and Kayla jump on the old trusty pickup the guys used to live out of to follow along.

The truck acts as a garage where they store camping gear, firewood, dog food, propane cans, and more. Kae and Alex chat on walkie-talkies while they drive, so they can choose the perfect spot together.

At the moment Tree is having engine troubles, so the guys are parked on a farm in Oregon where they work in exchange for a free parking spot. They’re saving up to pay for the repairs.

Bus Life vs Home Life

Kae and Alex love their nomadic lives on Tree.

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When they worked long shifts at restaurants, the couple barely saw each other and their pups. They’d work all day then share a fast-food dinner in front of the TV before going to bed and doing it all all over again.

Life was slightly easier with a flushing toilet and gas heating, but they were very unhappy. Kae confesses she used to struggle with anxiety and panic attacks back then.

She says: “Living in our bus has allowed us to live a healthier, active, fulfilling life—despite all odds being against us. Before we were just working to pay our bills. We owe our way of life to our bus and pups, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
If you’d like to see more pictures of this incredible rig or follow Kae and Alex’s adventures, check out The Treehouse Bus’ Instagram account.

From Homeless to Treehouse on Wheels: A Couple's Epic Shuttle Bus Makeover - The Wayward Home (2024)


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