Feel free to be jealous of Garrett Braddock, Andrew Cooney, and Anthony Liedtka—three Hamilton guys who “took an early retirement” to drive a skooly around the United States for pretty much as long as they feel like it.
First, a glossary: “early retirement” doesn’t refer to actual retirement. More like the space between careers that these 20-something friends knew was necessary to make an epic road trip happen. And “skooly” is the word for a school bus that’s been converted into a rolling home.
Less in need of decoding are the reasons why the trio wanted to take the trip: they just wanted to, and they were able to. They all saved up for a couple years, found a school bus to buy, and set out to make “A Bus Called Babe” (the name of the adventure and the skooly itself) a reality.
“This is the time to do it,” Cooney said in late August under a late-morning sun at Cherry Creek Park, outside of Denver, Colorado. “We all took an early retirement and saved our money. We all had good-paying jobs, and we were all able to stay at home, so that helped.”
Cooney, 24, was a union carpenter. Like his friend Liedtka, a 23-year-old auto mechanic, he considered his job and thought, “I’m not doing this forever.” What either of them plans to do once the Bus Called Babe tour is done is anyone’s guess, and it’s a guess neither of them is at the moment concerned about making.
Liedtka, who worked for auto dealerships for five years before the trip, said his job is waiting for him if he wants it when he returns. But this particular trio doesn’t even know where they’ll be tomorrow, much less at the other side of a months-long road trip.
That free wandering is the most important point for the friends. The only thing they know for sure is that they don’t know where the road will take them. When they set out, they only knew two destinations and two specific times. The first was Meadville, Missouri, where they had to be on Aug. 21 so they could watch the solar eclipse in totality. The second was Washington State, which they had to reach by Aug. 31, so they could meet up with another friend from Hamilton for a four-day, 47-mile trek through Olympic National Park.
Liedtka: “We’re playing it by ear.”
Cooney: “We’re just enjoying it as we go.”
Braddock: “We haven’t picked a campsite more than six hours before we go there.”
Braddock is a 24-year-old film- and videomaker chronicling the road trip in photos and on video and for Instagram (search out A Bus Called Babe). So far, what’s most struck him is just how different America looks when you see so many parts of it.
“We’ve been on a couple hiking trips together,” he said. “We’ve seen some national parks — Yellowstone, Zion, Yosemite. But it’s crazy driving through [the country] and seeing how it changes.”
From Colorado, the trio headed for Washington State. From there, the trio spent September roaming the Pacific Northwest, heading east from Washington to see national parks in Montana in the Dakotas. After that, they planned to loop back around and go to California. But who knows? There’s no itinerary and no sense rushing because they’re always home when they’re on Babe, and none of them have jobs, wives, or kids to get back to anytime soon.
Jealous yet? It’s OK if you are.
Of course, it hasn’t been 100 percent smooth cruising. As freewheeling as a road trip with no agenda and no specified end date might be, it took a lot of time, planning, sweat and money to get to the carefree part.
The three friends grew up together in Hamilton, where Cooney and Liedtka even played on the same youth basketball team. All went to Steinert High School before finding different paths in early adulthood. Cooney went straight to work as a carpenter, working mainly in New York City. He’s not sure if he wants to return to carpentry and contracting work, but he does know he doesn’t want to do it in New York because he hates it there.
Liedtka studied automotive technology at Mercer County College. Like Cooney, his job has brought him some good money, but he’s not sure he wants to keep doing what he’s done. Many in his family are in law enforcement, so he’s considering being a police officer.
Braddock studied filmmaking at Syracuse University. Like his tradesman friends, he’s not sure what he wants to do with his future, but unlike both friends, he knows he wants to stay in his current line of work. Maybe, somewhat to Cooney’s chagrin, he will move to New York to pursue his career. Whatever, he said, “it’ll come to me.”
In the meantime, he’s compiling footage for what he suspects will make a pretty good documentary of their travels.
Since high school, the three have done several outdoor adventures together, so the idea of a countrywide road trip was a natural extension. Or, as Cooney put it, “kind of like the Holy Grail.”
In 2016, the dream got less amorphous. The friends started searching out a bus to Babe-ify. Eventually they found one on a Facebook marketplace page, a 48-seater with a 5.9-liter Cummins auto transmission. They all chipped in to get it for $3,500 in February of this year, and then put $9,000 to $10,000 worth of work into it over six months.
Renovations started immediately with “straight-up deconstruction,” Braddock said. On Day One, they ripped out the seats. Cooney, who was on what the group referred to as one of several and equitably distributed mini-vacations, immediately broke out his carpentry skills to make the interior into a living space.
Liedtka, of course, got to work on the engine and the transmission, which has given them some trouble. Coolant leaks are a nagging concern. But having a mechanic on a road trip, equipped with his toolset, is certainly a benefit on a long road trip. At least for the others.
“It’s stressful for the mechanic,” Liedtka said.
Past the interior and carriage matters, lots of surprise legal issues showed up before Babe could hit the road. Insurance is a little different for RVs, for one thing. And to make a motor home legal, there are unique things to consider, like the fact that it needs a kitchen with a working stove, as well as a shower and a toilet. Then there’s the fact that a decommissioned school bus cannot be yellow anymore. The officially dubbed Babe is blue and green.
By early August, the three realized they were pretty much ready to go. Braddock said they had expected it to take less time to get Babe road ready, but suddenly they all realized, “We can leave next Sunday; we’re leaving,” he said. So on Aug. 13, they did.
Their first stop was Sugar Hill State Park, near Rochester, New York. They camped for free and met up with some friends. After, they made another stop, then headed to Chicago.
Verdict: Chicago’s deep-dish pizza is not overhyped. All three said so.
Braddock said they didn’t expect to actually camp in the middle of a major city, but they hung around Chicago, had a blast, and then went to the eclipse. From there, it was off to Colorado.
As the trip has evolved, so have the issues you don’t think about until you face them, like rain. They’ve had two or three torrential downpours while on the road. “It’s hard to keep water out of this thing,” Liedtka said.
But the three are handling troubles as they arise, which means the obvious question is, what about getting along with two other people you’re cooped up with all day, every day? So far, they said, it’s not been a problem, and none expect it to be.
“We’ve been on other trips together,” Liedtka said. And they’ve all been friends forever.
As you might expect, the three have no idea what to do with Babe after the road trip. They haven’t thought that far ahead. Cooney said they’ll likely hang onto it, maybe rent it out. He also said renovating buses for similar epic trips could be a good line of work for him.
“And I can take that wherever,” he said.
For now, who cares? the trio have youth, energy, money, and a lack of other commitments on their side. That’s on top of the itch to realize something they’ve long talked about.
“This is a dream realized,” Braddock said. “This is what we wanted to do.”
And that’s the point.