When an Ohio couple heard that a Yellowstone tour bus they used to drive was on the auction block, it never occurred to them they might be its owner a few days later.
But that’s how it played out for Mindy Brayo and Kelly Johnson, who, discovering a GSA auction of a 1975 MCI 5B 35-foot, 39-passenger Yellowstone tour bus, found themselves the proud new owners of it one week later.
“Our thought was, ‘Wow, how cool would this be to own a park bus, but oh, s–t, what do we do now?’” Brayo recalled, laughing, a little more than a month after their Sept. 10 purchase.
They had both spent a couple of seasons as Yellowstone National Park tour bus drivers when they were in college at Ohio’s Kent State University back in the mid-1980s. They worked for the concession company, TW Services, which was later sold and renamed Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Both of them had driven the bus, which was part of the fleet that took tourists on Upper and Lower Loop tours, evening wildlife tours, and “reg runs” to Jackson, Wyoming, Cody, West Yellowstone, and Bozeman.
They heard about the auction on Facebook from their old friend and former co-worker, Leslie Quinn, who still works for Xanterra’s Transportation Department.
Mindy and Kelly, both in their early 50s, weren’t in the market for an RV or anything like a 40-year-old bus, and owning such a thing had never crossed their minds. Mindy’s hoping to retire soon, so a big purchase wasn’t in their financial plans. But they checked out the auction site and saw it had a few days to go until it ended.
So they talked. They decided on their maximum bid, put a bid in. And watched. There were two other bidders, Mindy recalled, but they don’t known who they were or watch their plans might have been for a bus.
“It’s a piece of history and our history,” Kelly said. “It’s personal for us and history of our first national park. We drove that bus, it was affordable, so why not?”
And with a few minutes left to bid, they decided to go a little above their max, Mindy said.
“We didn’t want to find out later we had missed our chance over like $90,” she said.
At the close of auction, 505 was theirs—for $5,500.
And then the hard part started—how to get the bus from Gardiner to northeast Ohio by the removal deadline and within their time off from work. And by they way, Kelly and Mindy were scheduled to go on vacation on a Pacific Northwest cruise—for a while there, it looked like they might be canceling their cruise and spending their time off from work retrieving the bus.
Flying out and driving it was a first thought, but then the reality of getting the bus licensed and insured came up. And was it even driveable? Not sure.
Eventually, Mindy was able to locate a transportation broker who negotiated getting the bus trailered to Ohio for $5,000.
They knew it was really happening when they got a text message from another old bus driver friend, Diane Ihle Renkin, who lives in Gardiner. Diane was driving south down U.S. Highway 89 back to Gardiner when she saw a park bus loaded on a trailer pass her, headed north.
“I just saw your bus drive by,” she texted.
Mindy and Kelly knew it would be a couple of days before the bus arrived. They got a phone call on a Saturday morning from the flatbed driver, saying the bus would be in around noon.
They live on a dirt road with a long driveway, so they drove to the end of the driveway with their dogs—who have Yellowstone names, Bridger and Hoodoo—to watch and wait.
“We saw some large protruding lights and something tall,” Mindy recalled. “It was a flatbed truck with our 505 on top.”
Was it an emotional moment?
“We burst into tears,” Mindy said.
There were a few more tears before 505 was finally off the truck. It wouldn’t start. They tried jumping it with plain old jumper cables, which got fried but wouldn’t start the bus. They ended up getting help from a neighbor who has big trucks.
“When it started up, we cried because it sounded so good,” Mindy said.
Kelly got in the driver’s seat, the memory of how to drive the big bus coming immediately back to her, but it just wouldn’t go into reverse. Mindy then recalled the bus had an electronic reverse, which required more power than the battery could come up with.
So they had to push the bus off the trailer. The flatbed drivers, the neighbor, and Kelly’s 74-year-old dad all helped push. And then kept pushing it until it was far enough back to make the turn to pull it in next to the garage.
“We loaded up my dad and the dogs with Mindy driving it into the driveway,” Kelly said.
The plan now is to convert the interior to make the bus an official RV. Kelly said because of its weight, it can’t be insured on their regular car insurance policy because the bus is considered a commercial vehicle until it officially become an RV. And to be an RV it has to have a stove, a refrigerator and a bed, as Kelly understands it.
They’re thinking the engine is probably solid, and they’ll want to keep it because it has the power to climb hills and mountain passes, like in Yellowstone.
And there will be the interior design work to make it their own. Maybe some park maps on the countertops. Custom tile with Yellowstone photos. The design work will be ongoing.
And oh, yes, the plan is to drive it to Yellowstone someday. Probably not the upcoming 2017 season, but soon thereafter.
Anyone who has spent much time around Yellowstone agrees that something about the place gets to people.
“Yellowstone is so much a part of who we are,” Mindy said. “We have never stopped thinking about Yellowstone as our home.”