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Ripple In Still Water - Family Begins Two Year Journey In Modified School Bus

This week, a modified school bus pulled out of Iowa City to begin a two year journey across the country. While ostensively a trip to gain research, it's also a chance for an oldest child to leave the nest.

Astride a fiberglass balcony he and his sons installed, a sleepy Iowa City street unfolds before Chris Tallman with its garages, mailboxes and doorbells. While his new roof may not stretch as high as those eaves, it is his favorite part of the family’s new home.

“We’ve put a deck on top, first as a justification for the solar panels, but it’s now mostly just the best place in the house. To go up on the roof and have your coffee — or a cocktail — and ‘maintain the solar panels.’ ”

Below the roof; there isn’t brick or mortar. Instead: a floor he raised to make room for a water tank, space for a wood pellet burning stove, three bunks jig-sawed together for his three boys’ bedrooms. In fact, the only thing remaining that testifies to the structure’s former life is the chrome hood decal reading “Thomas Built Buses.”

Before any of the changes, it was a yellow school bus, but it has transformed. While much finishing work remains, the roof is raised in three sections, rippling from front to back; appropriate for a bus Tallman named “Ripple.”

Listen On River To River: Chris Tallman shares his story with host Ben Kieffer.

And for the next two years, Chris and Jenniey Tallman and their three sons will take off to search the country for land. The plan: to identify land that could be purchased to create a cooperative-owned park system for people wanting to camp or park their RV.

“Right now, we have massive pressure on our national park systems, on our state park systems and on our county park systems. They're overrun and when COVID showed up that blew the problem out of the water,” Chris said.

But as industrious as Ripple’s charge might be, along the way there is also a personal journey for the family.

“I imagine that we’re going to lose our oldest son along the way,” Chris said.

Cactus Tallman is 19 years old. And it's about time to leave the nest (or bus). He’s interested in getting into a craft school. While there is not a date set for saying goodbye, it’s floating out there.

“I haven't had all that much certainty in my life so far,” Cactus said. “I haven't always had money. I haven't always had a clear plan of what's happening next.”

He said he’s just happy to be figuring it out with his family as he goes. This approach — not knowing an endpoint but knowing how to get there — was a principle Chris wanted to inform the project: to court unknowns and problem-solve together.

“I’m seeing what I’m doing through the neighborhood. Through the people that I interact with. Through the folks that tell me what they see and how it’s making them feel. And that’s really good,” Chris said. “I’m kind of just a blind astronaut in this whole project. I don’t really know what’s going on. I know I’m going to the moon but I’m not sure that I’m the pilot of this whole thing. It really was meant to be for the kids.”

The family says the bus will be finished by September.

You can follow along with the Tallman family on Instagram. They shared their story on River to River.

Arts & Life IowaEnvironment
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Rick Brewer was a producer for IPR's Talk of Iowa and River to River
Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa