More than 100 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the edge of an ancient ocean shoreline, leaving their indelible marks on what is now Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, Texas. Venturing away from the fossilized tracks speckling the modern-day Paluxy River and into the park’s campground, patrons encounter yet another eye-catching, albeit more contemporary, curiosity that Asa and Jillian Vermeulen and their four daughters call home - Moe the bus.
“We’ve grown accustomed to people stopping in the middle of the road to stare,” said Jillian, a senior pursuing a Bachelor of Science in sociology in SFA’s Department of Anthropology, Geography and Sociology.
In truth, it is hard not to stare. Parked alongside larger, traditional recreational vehicles adorned in muted colors of gray, the Vermeulens’ green 1990 International school bus, equipped with a custom-made wooden door, sparks curiosity and adds an element of individuality not often seen among traditional RVs.
This summer served as the family’s inaugural venture into what is popularly known as tiny-house living. The tiny house movement is led in large part by millennials seeking to simplify material possessions, gain financial independence and, in the case of the Vermeulens, ensure mobility following graduation.
“We look at it as a gateway to be able to go anywhere after graduation and not feel confined by where we’re going to live,” Jillian said. “If Asa gets a job in another state, we won’t have to struggle to find a living space.”
For now, the family of six calls Dinosaur Valley State Park home, as Asa completes a summer internship for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and Jillian performs special projects for the park to fulfill her degree program’s required field work hours.
The park holds special significance for both Asa and Jillian, who camped there as children with their families. Walking along the river’s rocky shore, Asa recalls that his father has a photo of him sitting in one of the dinosaur tracks that he now shares with other families through interpretive programming.
Jillian said that despite the vocational detours Asa has taken during the past decade, time outdoors and sharing nature with others has always been a priority.
“When I met Asa, he told me he wanted to be a park ranger when he grew up,” Jillian said with a smile.
In 2008, Jillian became pregnant with their first daughter, Marley. Asa explained that although he was pursuing a degree at SFA, his family took precedence.
“That was during the recession, so my priority was finding a full-time job and obtaining insurance,” he said.
Following a meeting with an Army recruiter, Asa enlisted and was stationed in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. In 2011, he was deployed to Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province.
Asa said the region, which lies along the important Kabul-Kandahar Highway linking the country’s two largest cities, was engaged in combat. As a combat engineer, he regularly conducted route clearance in which he searched for improvised explosive devices placed along roads.
“I was in two improvised explosive device detonations, but I drove the biggest, most armored trucks the Army had,” he said. “I was fine both times, but our company often got hit.”
Jillian said following Asa’s return to the U.S., the family began downsizing their possessions to ease the burden of moving from Missouri to Texas.
Following Asa’s completion of firefighting academy training, the family, which had expanded to include two more daughters, Vivienne and Cypress, moved to Elkhart, Texas, where Asa pursued the emergency medical technician certification necessary to join the local fire department.
During this time, however, the family encountered an unforeseen obstacle: Their daughter, Cypress, contracted meningoencephalitis, a life-threatening inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, and she was hospitalized for 10 days in Dallas.
“I missed a lot of classes and had to drop out of the EMT program, which meant that when it was time for the fire department to call and hire me, I didn’t have the required certification,” Asa said.
Jillian explained those long days and nights spent at the hospital with their child led to many earnest conversations regarding the family’s future, as well as their individual career paths.
“For some reason, those 10 days together in the hospital totally changed where we wanted to go,” Jillian said.
Following Cypress’ recovery, the family moved back to Nacogdoches, and Asa re-enrolled at SFA. Like many young families, Asa and Jillian managed their household finances frugally and actively looked for ways to maximize their resources.
“I remember reading a blog about someone who lived in an RV with her family to save money and get out of debt, and I thought ‘we can do that,’” Jillian said.
The couple said they kept this option in the back of their minds until 2015 when they decided to sell one of their vehicles in order to move forward with their plan. After a thorough internet search, they found a decommissioned bus once used by a school’s marching band.
During the next two years, the family worked together to transform the blank canvas into a home equipped with a fully functioning kitchen, couch, composting toilet, shower and bunk beds for the family.
“One thing I’m loving about this summer is not having the internet and having the time to be together as a family to play games, read books and just relax,” Jillian said.
Despite the comfort of the bus’ air conditioning, as well as the plethora of books and board games, visitors to the Vermeulens’ home are unlikely to find their daughters inside for prolonged periods of time. In an era replete with research indicating children across the country are spending far less time outdoors than previous generations, the image of four young girls riding bicycles, playing in mud puddles and laughing while making imaginative proclamations around a campfire is a welcome sight.
As Asa delivers an interpretive presentation to park guests on the banks of the river he once roamed as a child, his family members look on, ready to be carried to their next outdoor adventure in Moe the bus.