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Home is where he parks it

A Cal State Fullerton senior has lived for nearly 19 months in the back of his pickup. What started as an economy move has taught him other lessons.

February 19, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

After a long day of film classes, working at the Apple Store, rock climbing at the gym and finishing homework in the student union, Cal State Fullerton senior Andy Bussell heads home -- to a white Toyota Tacoma with a twin-size mattress in the truck bed, a camper shell for protection and black curtains for privacy.

The 26-year-old has been living in his truck for nearly 19 months, skirting rules against sleeping in vehicles while otherwise living the life of a mainstream student. What started out as a way to save some cash has turned into a journey of self-reliance and independence.

"Even though I had a good job, I was tired of living paycheck to paycheck and not making any headway with my credit cards," he said. "I've learned that I can push myself, break down my own boundaries. I've been able to learn that I can change and adapt to different kinds of situations."

The odyssey began in 2005. Bussell was working full time as a "Mac genius" at the Apple Store in Newport Beach, sharing a $1,600-per-month apartment in Aliso Viejo. He had racked up more than $10,000 in credit card debt and was struggling to pay for school and save money for a three-month road trip. So on July 29, 2005, he started living in his truck, with the goal of lasting one year.

Co-workers created a pool on how long the truck life would last, with the longest prediction three months.

"I've beat that," he said. "Once you find a routine, it's actually really easy."

Most mornings, Bussell heads to the university gym to shower, shave and brush his teeth. Then he heads to class, and later to work. Evenings are often spent rock climbing or doing yoga, visiting friends or studying in the student union, which has wireless Internet access. Then he heads back to the truck, which he parks in a variety of locations, and plays guitar, reads with a battery-powered headlamp or watches DVDs on his laptop.

There have been hiccups along the way -- less than two months after Bussell began living in his truck, he was ticketed by a Costa Mesa police officer, who told him it was illegal to sleep in a vehicle. The citation cost him $177.50, "but when you haven't paid rent for ... months, it's not that bad," he said.

His mail goes to a post office box. What he misses most are a kitchen and a bathroom. To deal with the former, he buys food such as yogurt and fruit in small quantities, and to deal with the latter, he takes advantage of public facilities. On occasion, he has resorted to employing an empty Gatorade bottle.

"It's handy being a guy," he said.

Bussell planned to end his time in the truck after completing a nearly three-month road trip last summer, visiting many national parks in the West. But upon his return, he became busy with work and school, and hasn't had time to think about moving into permanent lodging. The credit card debt, which was part of the reason for his decision to live in a vehicle, is nearly paid off.

Bussell's mother, Jill, a health plan auditor who lives in Northern California, has conflicted feelings about her son's choice of dwelling -- a mix of motherly worry and filial pride.

"If it was your kid, what would you think? We don't want him in the truck, that's obvious," she said. But "he's a very determined human being. The life experiences Andy's made have been just tremendous."

Some attribute Bussell's lifestyle to his childhood experiences backpacking and camping while growing up in South Lake Tahoe.

Steven Cuellar, 23, met Bussell about two years ago while working at the Apple Store in Fashion Island. When he learned about his friend's plans to live in a truck, he was stunned.

"I thought it was a crazy, whacked-out idea," said Cuellar, who graduated from Cal State Fullerton in June. "At the same time, I know him, so I was like, I know he can do it. He's all like outdoorsy ... and that's the perfect setup for a person who likes to be outdoors. It's like camping 24-7."

Bussell has attracted attention on campus, from fellow film students, who created a short documentary about him, and from the campus newspaper. But he has long been an oddity among his peers. He graduated two years early from high school yet has spent a decade in college, switching majors several times. He graduates in the spring, and is awaiting responses to grad school applications. He hopes to shoot travel pieces and nature documentaries, and plans to write a book about his experiences. Postings on his blog, gotruckyourself.blogspot.com, will provide fodder.

"I've learned that I could set my mind to something and do it," he said. "I think I've gained an appreciation for homelessness, in a way. Mine is a choice, but I can appreciate it now. I can understand what people are going through."

Still, to gain a further understanding, Bussell plans to live as a homeless person for a week before he graduates, carrying a backpack with his belongings and sleeping in the bushes of Cal State Fullerton.

"There are so many things to do, and I've got to do them all," he said.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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