- Associated Press - Sunday, May 14, 2017

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - Will Sutherland always enjoyed traveling the world. Now almost daily, the world shows up at his doorstep by way of a little yellow school bus.

Sutherland draws national and international travelers to his home eager to sleep inside his refurbished school bus in the woods outside his home on the outskirts of Shepherdstown. Mostly vacationing visitors pay him for the novelty experience, as guests booked through the online couch, room and home renting platform Airbnb.

“Now it’s like the traveling comes here, and I don’t have to go to so many places to get cultural experiences,” said Sutherland, a bit of an easygoing rolling stone himself, who has trekked all 50 states in the United States and through South America and Europe.

Sort of a getaway retreat for survivalist honeymooners, the bus offers a cabin-like ambiance combined with a school-detention isolation (without the spitballs). Its amenities include a comfy full-sized bed, a sofa, wood flooring and paneling, a handsome desk and lots of windows. Perhaps most important for chilly winter nights, the bus has a working wood stove and radiator heater (and an equally prized air conditioner for summertime).

In addition to having squeaky clean Boy Scout charm, the bus has curtains, but no bathroom or kitchen. But visiting dogs are welcomed guests, too.

Although they sleep in the bus, overnight guests share Sutherland and his girlfriend’s kitchen and bath, an arrangement where paths cross that prompts lots of friendly greetings, meetings and a few all-night conversations if guests wish to socialize.

“A lot of times people go out to dinner, then come in and chat in the evening and catch up,” Sutherland said.

“It’s kind of like a family situation,” added Sutherland, who - like his girlfriend Sabrina Hartley, 27 - comes from a large family where someone is always at home, around the corner or at your elbow. “It feels really weird when people are not around.”

Make no mistake, fellow travelers - this bus is one hot ticket to ride. Overnighters, particularly the high-adventure and low-budget kind, are swooning. Virtually every weekend the bus is booked with guests. About 700 people have stayed the night in this rusticated palace on wheels since Sutherland began renting it out in December 2014.

Generating an extra income stream at the rate of $69 per night, those stay overs have allowed Sutherland to pay off his student loans, and the 32-year-old hopes the bus rentals will allow him to pay of his mortgage early.

“It’s definitely nice to have the extra money coming in,” he acknowledged.

The bus is a cozy three-quarter size 1997 International Blue Bird, which is about the size of child’s bedroom inside. Except it has a steering wheel.

“It’s not too small and not too big,” said Sutherland, who renovated the bus himself.

He bought the bus online for $1,000 as a bachelor’s roving crash pad. It starts and can be driven; however, Sutherland is keeping it parked with the brake on for now.

So for now, until another road trip beckons Sutherland, people from all over the country can scurry online to rent out the charming bus in the woods of West Virginia.

Although most guests come from the Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia areas, the bus has served as the snooze pod for vacationers and business people from every continent (except Antarctica, naturally). Citizens from Pakistan, China, Ireland, Australia, Iran, Brazil, Italy and the United Kingdom have called the bus their temporary home.

“On average, we have less foreign travelers who come here,” Sutherland said, “but they are more adventuresome than the average American traveler.”

Checking the messages left in the bus’s guest book, many guests have left lifelong memorable stories in their wake, and a few are counted as friends who stay in touch with Sutherland and Hartley. The couple remembers the kind students from Iran; the book the New York Times writer was drafting; the “super enthusiastic” motorcycle couple from the South African Embassy in Washington; the Civil War battlefield researcher; the sparkling gin shared by a group of four English women; the kindly couple from Ireland who made West Virginia feel like Ireland; and the friendly smiles and head nodding from a family from China visiting universities with their college-bound daughter.

Simple gestures go a long way in communicating when a language difference becomes a barrier, Sutherland said, though he keeps an electronic translator handy in a pinch. Politics is avoided as a house rule, unless a guest initiates the topic. Many guests have shared invaluable knowledge or experience, and even more leave behind memories of the simple gift of a kindness from their souls.

Sometimes feeling as much of an ambassador for West Virginia and America as much as an overnight host, Sutherland welcomes the diversity of humanity that streams his way. He has learned to anticipate and accept a home-cooked meal as a thank you from guests from Asia. He has given free rides, picked up and dropped off people from train stations, joined them on hikes along the area’s scenic trails or simply talked with guests for hours far into the night.

“We really like leaving a good impression of our state,” Sutherland said.

So far, he said he has never had a bad guest experience (a few minor dog accidents have happened, but that’s no sweat for a guy with three dogs himself). And apparently his guests feel likewise about their highly personable host, who once received a thank you package full of treats from Airbnb for taking care of a few guests so well during a sudden winter blizzard. The bus and its host consistently draw five star reviews from Airbnb guests (the best rating available).

“The guests are by far the absolute best part of having this bus,” Sutherland said. “Sometimes people will show up and within five minutes become the friend that you never met. It’s a constant reminder of how many great people there are in the world.”

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.

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