You may have seen it. Maybe in Ukiah, maybe in Hopland, maybe in Boonville. Maybe on the 253 behind an All-In-One tow truck, maybe parked at the RV park. Maybe in Philo as it was being driven home by a kind mechanic. If you saw it, you would remember it: A 35-foot-long lime green Gillig schoolbus with flames, yes flames, painted on the front of it.
If you saw it, and even if you didn’t, welcome to the saga of the Flaming Green Pickle Bus.
The story starts innocently enough. I have co-owned two previous schoolbus RVs and always wanted one of my own. The other two were dog-nosed, automatic transmission, 20-ish feet long, and manageable. The one in this story is over 10 feet longer, snub-nosed, manual reverse transmission with a Caterpillar engine. It’s a lot of bus, and it started its life in Monterey as a traveling medical clinic way back in 1975 when it first hit the road (the original bed in the examining room/bedroom had stirrups, something I try not to think about when I use the RV conversion bus on my travels). The second owner of the bus apparently owned a tractor shop and painted his entire fleet with the Kawasaki green/flame motif, subjecting the bus to its current unique style. Regardless of all the not-quite-right details, I purchased it, one of a very few vehicle purchases I have ever made. I own a few older cars, but they were mostly gifts by fed up previous owners who realized I have the patience and know enough competent mechanics to master ‘old car ownership’ well (one of my Instagram hashtags is #catshomeforoldcars). But this bus was different. I had to A) buy it, and B) learn how to drive it, and C) learn all the sneaky little tricks to keep up with its demanding protocol; the multiple keys, the buttons, the on/off switches, levers, gears, etc. There is a lot going on with the old girl, (who used to be a “boy” named Gilligan and now is a female entity called Soulshine). Maybe that’s what started her rebellion, the name and gender switch, we will never know. But my maiden voyage in Soulshine from Philo ended abruptly in June in Ventura when suddenly the clutch gave out and I barely made it off the 101 freeway.
After two months in a Santa Paula mechanic shop (after 3 other mechanic shops had to decline the opportunity to fix her up due to her size and age), I picked Soulshine up in August and headed home. To avoid San Francisco in that behemoth vehicle, I headed toward Sacramento and Highway 20, my daughter trailing me in my 1986 GMC van. (You may have seen that van around too: red and silver-striped with a hot pink roof. Only I am to blame for that color combination). My daughter Cassidy and I made it north of Sacto after having lunch with my bestie, Melinda, near the American River. After our stop, Soulshine Bus quit going in to gear again. I managed to have her towed to a local truck repair shop in Woodland. And there Soulshine the Flaming Green Pickle Bus sat. For another two months. The mechanics at the shop were not sure what to do about the bus that landed in their lot after hours. Luckily I was able to find a mechanic who was excited to spring her from her current stalled situation. He was the so-called “California Gillig expert” and owned every old bus part I could ever need. I had known of him for several months on a Gillig bus online social media page and was thrilled when he agreed to come from Fresno to check her out.
I didn’t know he was certifiable until much too late.
There were incidents from the get-go, including that he got kicked out of the hotel room he was staying in (on my dime) for causing a disturbance. I smoothed the ruffled feathers with the hotel managers as well as the truck repair shop where the owner was telling me the Fresno mechanic I had hired was abrasive and causing issues, offending everyone, and acting up on his lot.
I decided to send The Rogue Mechanic back to Fresno and have the bus towed to another recommended shop when it happened: I was almost back home to Philo when I got a text from the owner of the repair shop where I’d left Soulshine, and with whom I had arranged for the tow to the next shop. “Your Fresno mechanic took your bus off the lot,” the owner said, sending me a photo of my bus leaving the premises of the repair yard, being driven away by The Rogue Mechanic in first gear. “That seems like stealing to me! Should I call the cops?”
Yes, was my immediate response, but then I thought about it. The Rogue Mechanic had no cell phone. Our last conversation in person was that he would take the bus to Fresno. I arranged the other plan to have him go home and the bus towed via phone calls with other mechanics, but not with The Rogue Mechanic directly, because he had disappeared and didn’t show up in the morning while I was there waiting for him at the lot before I left town. This was problematic. Technically, The Rogue Mechanic had my permission to take the bus: To Fresno. To fix it. “I’ll handle it,” I replied, wondering how I would handle it with no way to reach The Rogue Mechanic by phone.
And so the saga began. The Rogue Mechanic decided to “surprise me” by fixing and bringing my bus to my home in Philo. Not that he knew where I lived. With no phone or Google maps, the closest city he knew I lived near was Ukiah, or Hopland. And so the 10-day heist began. I went to the CHP and considered putting in a stolen bus report. That is also known as Grand Theft Auto. You know, like the game. Only this time, with a Rogue Mechanic and Flaming Green Pickle Bus. “If you file a stolen vehicle report the driver will be arrested on sight,” the CHP officer informed me.
That didn’t seem fair: The Rogue Mechanic obviously had some kind of mental illness, was living on my bus (ew), but he was in my neighborhood, apparently trying to return the bus to me, so is that really stealing? I didn’t want to ruin his life because even though he was acting in a highly unusual manner, I believed his intentions were to fix my bus and return it to me. So instead of filing a police report, I put out my own “APB” on my lost bus on social media, and it turned out it was being seen by the “Skoolie Nation” faction of schoolbus RV enthusiasts off the 101.
I was actually able to track The Rogue Mechanic and Soulshine Bus’ whereabouts via eye-witness online reports. I kept missing catching up to the Rogue Mechanic when I got a lead, because I live an hour away from the areas where he was being seen on the 101, and the trips were tedious: One day we ended up at a closed casino sounding crazy ourselves as my property manager Morris and I asked residents if they had seen a lime green schoolbus with flames. There is just no easy way to ask that question and not have people look at you sideways.
I realized that The Rogue Mechanic was manic and either off his meds or on too many, but finally on Day 10, two friends of mine messaged me and told me they’d seen the bus and that it had been parked for over 24 hours in front of the bowling alley by Raley’s. I was meeting a friend in Ukiah that day, and told him the problem. He went over to keep an eye on the bus until I got there. He tipped off The Rogue Mechanic that I was coming, and The Rogue Mechanic quickly unhooked his little truck full of tools he’d been towing (less full than when he started, because people had been stealing his stuff right out of the back of his truck the whole time).
By the time I got to my bus and the mechanic, he looked spun: eyes glazed, tired. He started showing me that the battery acid was too weak by sticking his fingers in it and putting it to his lips; he was a mess. I felt bad for him, but I didn’t feel safe near him as he started yelling about how he had “fixed” my bus (even though it wasn’t running or even starting at the moment). He said I owed him thousands of dollars for 10 days of repairs (I had already paid him in advance for coming to look at the bus and he was paid for his attempts to help with the bus up until to the time he took it). He threatened to pop my tires on the bus unless I paid him. I discretely called 911 while pretending to get my wallet: He was obviously experiencing a break with reality. My friend watched from a distance to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. Next thing you know, the most epic thing happened: As The Rogue Mechanic was yelling at me in the bowling alley parking lot that he was going to pop my bus tire, and then threatened my tire with a screwdriver, arm raised and point aimed, just at the moment the local sheriffs came up behind him. An officer grabbed his hand as he wielded the tool, and twisted his arm behind him, saying “you are detained, Sir!” And handcuffed him. It was all very polite as the police continued to sort out the rather bizarre story. I did not press charges, but I think he got a ticket for trespassing. Either way, The Rogue Mechanic was released to go back home to Fresno, and the police escorted him off the premises and made him promise not to come back. Eventually I was able to get the no-longer-running-beast towed to a local campground. The nicest people ever watched over Soulshine there until she was repaired in one day by my new favorite person, Ed in Boonville, the hero who finally brought Soulshine Bus back home.
So that is the saga of the wacky-looking lime green bus you may have seen. And Soulshine is going to stay around here at home in Philo for now as I repair some of the "dismantled" parts that occurred during her June to November odyssey. Or maybe I mean ODDyssey. Either way, if you saw a big lime-green-and-white old-fashioned schoolbus with flames painted on the front of it, now you know what you saw, why you saw it, and the whole story. I am just glad my wayward pickle bus made it back home and we can all breathe a little easier knowing that The Rogue Mechanic is back in his own neck of the woods in Fresno, and Soulshine Bus is safely parked in her own neck of the woods here in Philo.