An epic road trip in an old school bus capped off two years of friendship for a close-knit group of engineering students, determined to embark on one final adventure before graduation.
The 14 classmates planned a west coast, multi-state journey that took them through mountains and forests, cities and beaches during spring break.
The students combined their money and creativity to convert a former small school bus into their $2,900 ticket across 3,225 miles.
“There were so many of us, and we wanted to make it our most memorable spring break because this was our last spring break before graduation,” mechanical engineering senior Simon Vargas said.
Of the 14 friends, 13 actually made the trip, which included stops at the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Hollywood, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Santa Monica.
They nicknamed the bus, Thomas, after “The Little Engine That Could.” It had 316,000 miles on it, and its top speed was 65 mph, but it proved to be a reliable purchase, Vargas said.
After painting it gray, the students thought it looked like a prison vehicle, so they spray painted a pineapple and their group nickname “SCBP,” which stands for Sharp Corners Bad Pineapples. During one class, mechanical engineering senior Kahlid El Hefni said he was taking notes when the professor said, “sharp corners are bad.” The group added pineapples to the phrase inspired by a Kevin Hart skit, and that became their name. In the skit, pineapple is a word to add to awkward phrases.
They drove straight to the Grand Canyon from Arlington, with only stops for gas. The first trip was 24 hours, mechanical engineering senior Rojan Napal said. Six of the group members drove and switched off every four hours. The drivers had to get used to driving a large unfamiliar vehicle, he said.
“When you were going uphill, the first time you got on the steering wheel, you had to push that sucker all the way in, otherwise, it’s not going to kick it down in gear and keep that momentum,” Napal said. “The bus was pedal to the metal the whole trip.”
They camped at a free campsite near the Grand Canyon. The spot had no water or electricity connections or bathrooms. They weren’t prepared to camp, so before they got to the campsite, they stopped for camping supplies from Walmart. The first night, the temperature dropped down to 21 degrees, mechanical engineering senior Erik Hernandez said.
“There’s nothing out there, so you pretty much have to fend for yourself,” Hernandez said.
They bought supplies, including hand warmers, to keep them warm. Mechanical engineering senior Ben Tran put the hand warmers everywhere, he said, including his sleeping bag. Tran had never experienced weather that cold before, he said. The group woke up with ice in their hair and all over the tents, he said. The group fit 13 people in two tents.
Vargas said he was struck by the Grand Canyon’s beautiful scenery. It was his most memorable moment, he said. It was the group’s first time to see the canyon, except for Tran, he said.
“You see it in pictures, but, you know, in person it’s just massive,” Vargas said.
Because the bus averaged about six miles per gallon, the group stopped about every two hours to fill up for gas. The students spent $1,200 on fuel, only coming dangerously close to empty at one point while mechanical engineering senior Edgar Alcaraz was driving at about 2 a.m., which caused a scare.
“Everyone was sleeping on the bus and the driver was driving. He said, “Guys, it’s running out,’ ” Tran said laughing.
The trip started March 11 and lasted until March 18, Vargas said. They camped one night and spent three nights in hotels and drove all night for the rest.
The group rearranged the seats from the traditional rows to face each other inside the bus, seating two people each.
Sleeping on the bus wasn’t comfortable, Napal said, and sometimes some of them would sleep on the floor. A few times it got really cold like when they were in New Mexico, he said.
“We get into New Mexico, and I remember waking up and everyone was just shivering,” Napal said. “It was probably like what, 40 degrees in the bus? We got cold fast.”
After the Grand Canyon, the group headed to Las Vegas where they stayed at the hotel Planet Hollywood for two nights.
The group checked out most major hotels in Las Vegas, Nevada including the Venetian, MGM Grand Las Vegas Hotel & Casino and Caesars Palace, but they were light on details beyond that.
“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” Tran said, laughing.
Their last stop was Santa Monica, California. There they rented bikes and explored about half the city and beach using Google Maps, Napal said.
On the way back from their trip, the group traveled 30 hours home with only stops for food and gas, Vargas said. They brought board games on the trip and set up an inverter generator to have power for video games and movies.
Planning was the most complex process for the trip, Napal said. The group met for 1 1/2 hours at 7 p.m. every Thursday for almost two months before spring break. The first decision they had to make was to go to the west or east coast. Vargas and Napal each made a PowerPoint for the coasts, and the west coast got the majority vote because of the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas.
“A lot of ideas popped up, and from that, we voted. We took the majority of ideas,” Tran said.
The group would like to sell the bus to another group of UTA students to make it a campus tradition, Napal said. The bus is for sale on Craigslist for $3,500, but if another group of UTA students is interested, they will sell it for how much they spent on it, he said.
“I thought we were going to have more conflict, but we’re all friends,” he said. “It was a great way to end our career at UTA. We road tripped across half the country, and it was fun. I’d recommend it to anyone.”