When Martha Hudson’s “Bikini Bus” comes into view on a dirt pullout high above the sea in Davenport, my heart jumps. One, because I’ve been wanting to meet this woman for some time now, and two, because the bus is like a giant piñata on the horizon. The 29-year-old maker, activist and buslifer has just painted her ’86 Chevy on the eve of its two-year anniversary, shedding the last vestiges of its previous life shuttling kids to school for sunset stripes of coral-orange, dusty pink, melon, and a shade of yellow a few ticks happier than the school-bus standard.
“I maybe should have known it was going to be obscenely bright,” Hudson laughs. “The yellow is called ‘Eye Catching.’” But then, Hudson is a designer who takes risks. The stripes cool the glare in a mesmerizing way.
Living and working in a bus is in itself a defiant rejection of societal norms, but from that colorful platform, as well as through her Instagram account @luv_martha, Hudson has become a role model for another type of freedom, too. Her passion for DIY life on the road found perfect synergy with her commitment to body positivity and inclusivity. These are the values at the heart of Hudson’s lifestyle, as well as her custom swimwear business Luv Martha, which caters to all sizes and genders, and which she often models herself. Though she knows it sounds like a paradox, she’s out to subvert the patriarchy with bikini making.
I’ve followed Hudson on Instagram for a couple of years now, living vicariously through her school bus conversion, evolving line of adventurewear, and reliably frequent ventures to swimming holes and hot springs. A self-proclaimed one-woman circus, Hudson has strapped herself to a rope in 40-mile-an-hour winds outside Roswell, New Mexico, to wrangle a solar panel on her roof that was hanging on by a thread; she’s run out of fuel a half-mile from a small-town Arizona gas station; and she’s driven across the Central Valley without air conditioning in the hottest hours of a summer day, stripping down to her preferred undergarments—one of her own bikinis—and sliding around the leather seat in a pool of sweat as onlookers’ faces registered a mixture of compassion and scandal.
It’s endearing to laugh at oneself, and Hudson does it again and again as we talk about the trials and errors of life in a converted school bus—a life that revolves around hiking, swimming, naps on the Pacific Coast, a near-constant list of surprise bus repairs, and sewing every single day to keep up with orders and overhead costs (Hudson gets just 12 miles to the diesel gallon, and pays rent for a homebase parking spot in the Santa Cruz Mountains). But there’s something incredibly exuberant about her laughter: She’s living the only life she knows how. And she knows full well that she’s a spectacle.
“It’s performance art. The act of driving around, and traveling and living alone in the bus,” she says. “There is so much to say about solo bus life as a woman.”
Hudson’s dog Romi, a four-year-old German shepard, strains at her leash. “She gets excited by strangers,” says Hudson.
People sometimes come up to Hudson at campsites and ask where her husband is. “I do not have a husband,” she laughs. “And also, even if I did, he doesn’t have to be in the car with me. I could do this on my own. And, yeah, I’ll do it in a bikini.”
If the exterior of Hudson’s bus is a party, the inside is the serene opposite—seafoam green walls that soothe the optic nerve are juxtaposed with mustard-yellow curtains that wallop the same nerve when they catch the sun.
The bus’s many windows were a requisite. “I knew I wanted lots of natural light,” she says. Hudson is wearing a brown-mustard-colored jumpsuit embroidered with the words “Safety First” (a thrift-store find she guesses was formerly worn on an oil rig), and her signature Doc Martens. Her hair is silvery-blonde, tinted by just a pixie-sneeze hint of another day’s more vibrant mermaid green.
It’s not the first time Hudson has lived in an automobile. Fresh out of UCSC, where she majored in community studies, she lived in a friend’s RV to save money and avoid signing a lease that would tie her down. Later, she lived in a Jeep while looking for a job in Hawaii. “It was really fun—the climate is so pleasant it didn’t feel like a hardship at all,” says Hudson. Later still, she lived in a truck with a camper shell, spending most of her time in Big Sur, and when that broke down, in a Subaru. “When I lived in the truck and the Subaru, I was leaving my ex, and it was not a healthy relationship, so it was this safe haven for me,” says Hudson. “This time is definitely the nicest, and the most intentional. I planned to do this. I built it for what I needed.”
There is extreme order in the Bikini Bus. Aside from a well-worn copy of Tom Robbins’ Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates and a few pieces of art magnetized to the walls and ceiling, personal items are kept out of sight under the wooden bed where I sit. A small refrigerator, run on solar panels she installed herself, and a propane oven with double burners, make up the bungee-cord-secured kitchen, from which she produces two mugs of coffee.
“Gutting it was a way bigger project than I thought it was gonna be. It ended up being pretty wild,” says Hudson. The unmistakable school-bus smell of rubber and spilt milk disappeared only after she ripped out the seats, which were rusted to the floor, and then the rubber floor itself, which she replaced with a layer of insulation followed by dark, faux-wood vinyl flooring.
All of this was done in slow increments as she sold bikinis or traded with other maker friends to help her. When Hudson bought her bus for $2,000 in Oregon two years ago, she was left with about $17 to her name.
For many reasons, vehicle living is on the rise across the nation (if Instagram is any measure, the hashtag #vanlife has over 4 million posts). But in Santa Cruz, being priced out of housing is a common refrain. Roughly 10 years ago, the once-desolate dirt pullouts along the coast north of town began to fill with nightly car-sleepers. About a year ago, No Parking signs for the nighttime hours were posted on all of the pullouts stretching as far north as Waddell Creek.
“It’s unfortunate,” says Hudson, who got a $96 fine there this year, “but on the flipside, I do understand, because some of the pullouts were getting really trashed with people’s garbage. I get that when you’re really struggling to survive, your environmental impact isn’t necessarily the most important thing, and maybe the gas and $10 at the dump is all of the $10 you have, but at the same time, there’s dumpsters at some of these beaches, and that doesn’t seem that hard to me.”
CJ Flores, 50, is a friend of Hudson’s who has also lived in a converted school bus for the past two years, after the home he’d rented for 18 years near the Beach Flats was sold and he couldn’t find another rental he could afford. On the phone one evening from his bus—where double blackout curtains keep his presence in a residential neighborhood discreet—Flores tells me No Parking signs are going up all over town, too. The problem is what he calls “RV Dwellers.” “They find a spot that doesn’t have a sign, and they will park there and stay for like a month, until a cop or somebody comes and tells them to leave. It’s not cool. They put all their trash outside, and they basically make a homestead in that one spot,” says Flores. Out of respect for neighbors and other buslifers, says Flores, one should never park in the same spot two nights in a row when sleeping in the city.
“If someone is in a vehicle that’s functioning, and they’re not breaking any laws, the last thing we want to do is tow that vehicle and displace that person,” says SCPD Deputy Chief of Police Rick Martinez. Officers only investigate vehicle dwellers on a complaint basis, and didn’t give citations if drivers were responsive to moving along. As of September, amid controversy over how to house the city’s large outdoor homeless population, the city’s camping ordinance—in effect since 1978—was lifted, following a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision. “It is not a crime to sleep in one’s vehicle, and no longer illegal for that matter to camp or sleep in a public space,” says Martinez.
THE MECHANICS OF IT
Two years in, Hudson says she’s way more mechanically inclined than she used to be, thanks to YouTube tutorials. “But still, there’s a bunch always going on with it that I don’t know anything about,” she says.
While heading out to a Women on the Road gathering in Taos, New Mexico, in October, Hudson experienced power steering, oil and brake fluid leaks. Stopped at a truckstop in a small town in Arizona to check and refill her fluids, a man walked up, addressed her as “Sweet Cheeks” and asked if she needed “someone who knows what they’re doing.”
“I was offended,” she says, “but then all I could do was laugh hysterically, because I realize I look hilarious popping out of this sherbet-colored school bus with blue hair flying, and that I don’t know what I’m doing—in the big picture sense. I know perfectly well how to change my oil.”
For many in the nomadic community who are less than mechanically inclined, AAA is a relatively affordable godsend. During a small breakdown in Arizona, Hudson got a tow and stayed in a hotel for a night. But she says she feels much safer sleeping in her bus than in a hotel.
The Taos gathering Hudson attended—hosted by the blog Vanlife Diaries and the podcast series Women on the Road—attracted nearly 175 female and non-binary solo travelers, many of whom had been following each other on instagram and were meeting in real life for the first time.
“The biggest themes we identified were around encountering sexism on the road, and then around safety in general—what people are actually afraid of, whether that’s something that’s put on us or not,” says Laura Hughes, 29, who hosts the Women on the Road podcast. “We really wanted to set a space for everyone who was there to have conversations around the really tough stuff, too.”
Hudson says the gathering opened her eyes to the sheer number of ladies and non-binary folk on the road, and provided a special space to open up and connect. She left with many friends who are also on the road, something she says she didn’t really have before. Outside of that community, most people assume that her lifestyle is inherently dangerous—an assumption she takes issue with because of its precarious alignment with victim blaming. “It’s like, ‘She was wearing something skimpy’ or ‘She was drinking too much’—‘She travels alone’ is also thrown in there,” says Hudson. “I will be the first to admit that being female in this country and in this time, and in other places in the world, is dangerous. But in my experience, being on the road is no more dangerous. I think most of the terrible things that have happened to me have been close to home.”
Being the first all-woman gathering of its kind, conversations around sexism and safety on the road are only just beginning to gather group force.
“When Gail Straub started the Women on the Road written interview series four years ago, there really weren’t many solo female travelers who were willing to share their stories, because of safety reasons, and it seemed maybe a little bit socially unacceptable to be traveling in that way,” says Hughes. “But there are so many women doing it now that we sometimes get the opposite end of the spectrum, where women who have partners are saying, ‘Hey, I feel kind of left out in this Women on the Road group because I’m not solo.’ I find it a good problem to have, that we actually see so many female solo travelers now.”
But of all of the women Hughes has met and interviewed, Hughes says she hasn’t seen many who are activists in the way Hudson is. “Blending all of her interests and passions and using the bus literally as a vehicle for that,” says Hughes. “She has such a solid voice, and I think her message is really unique, and what she has to say about body positivity and feminism and travel is really powerful.”
Hudson’s sewing studio takes up the entire left side of her bus, and its crucial prize is a massive industrial Juki serger sewing machine. A series of hanging bins—the “shipping and receiving department”—hold in-progress pieces and finished suits, freshly wrapped in cheetah-print tissue paper.
Hudson, who grew up in and around Sacramento, has been sewing since she was 5. Luv Martha materialized about four years ago, when she was posting homemade clothing on Instagram and a swimsuit she had posted was met with several order requests. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I can sell these, this is fine with me,’” she says. “And then I felt that it fit more with who I am and what I want to do and what I care about in the world.”
Selling through Instagram, her website and word of mouth, Hudson ships her swimsuits internationally. Her growing following includes an unexpectedly strong customer base in Australia and New Zealand.
“I think a lot of swimsuits that are on the market right now are really only functional for laying in the sun. And I don’t think that’s fair,” says Hudson, and I nod, because every time I bend over while wearing a bikini top I recently purchased from a mainstream label, my boobs fall out. It wouldn’t last five seconds in the ocean. “I love being super active—swimming in the ocean and body surfing and hiking, and I think there’s a lot available for men that’s kind of crossover fashion, and not as much of that is available for women,” says Hudson.
Drawing on vintage and street styles of Mexico City and New York, among other inspirations, Hudson uses deadstock fabric of quick-drying nylon and spandex blends that would otherwise be headed for the dump. Someday, she says, she’d like to make suits from recycled plastic, but at this point she’d have to double her prices to do that—and she prefers to keep her pricing competitive with major brands, if not more accessible: “I want my friends to be able to get stuff.”
Just as no two Luv Martha swimsuits are exactly the same size, they’re also customized to fit a multitude of purposes. Hudson has just designed a bikini, for instance, for a woman who runs in the backcountry of Alaska, and she makes a backless romper for Burning Man that comes with a built-in sun visor. She also loves to design pieces for people who are transitioning genders, since it’s often hard for them to find something they feel comfortable in that suits their needs.
Refusing to standardize her sizing, sell in stores, or compromise the integrity of a custom suit made exactly to each individual’s measurements is a time-consuming feat. Hudson admits that she’s still not at a place where she’s saving money. The Patreon account I find on her website late one night—a platform for accepting donations from supporters—appears to be gathering dust.
“It’s an enormous amount of back and forth,” says Hudson, who even includes a complimentary adjustment, should it be needed, with each sale. “I spend kind of a ridiculous amount of time emailing people and talking to people. But I like that part. It gives it more of a personal touch.”
THE BODY IS POLITICAL
Hudson’s body positivity becomes a courageous and rebellious stance in a society where the term “bikini body” is universally understood to not include all bodies. But the social constructs that are most damaging to young girls are often much more subtle.
“I got my boobs when I was like 11. And then everything around me changed,” says Hudson. She’s agreed to meet me for coffee on a rainy day, even as the emergency hatch in her bus, which she had been (mis)appropriating as a stargazing and sightseeing hatch, is leaking. Alienating the female body as a sexual object, she says, is the opposite of cultivating a healthy community where women and girls are safe. She points to school dress codes. “We’re taught that it’s the little girl’s job to dress differently and act differently and be covered up and be submissive, really, to these rules,” she says, “because boys can’t be expected to control themselves, and teachers can’t be expected to—that it makes people uncomfortable.”
She thinks women, especially, have been taught that the more skin they show the less respectful it is, or the sexier it is. “I’ve been working to reclaim my body, and take the power away from that,” she says. “I don’t think everybody has to wear what I wear. I don’t think everybody has to run around or drive a schoolbus in a bikini. Everybody can do it in a different way, but for me it’s been incredibly healing.”
Hudson struggled with eating disorders during her adolescence, which became serious at times. In retrospect, she says part of it was that she wasn’t seeing bodies that looked like hers and that were celebrated. “That’s hard. It’s scary. You think that something has to be wrong if there’s no mirror of you anywhere in what is considered beautiful,” she says.
In some ways, it seems unfathomable that women are still having to fight to subvert unrealistic beauty standards, but the movement in this country is alive and well. Last month, outrage followed Victoria’s Secret marketing executive Edward Razek’s renewed denunciation of using plus-size and trans models because it did not fit the company’s “fantasy.” Hudson, who grew up at a time when Victoria’s Secret was aggressively marketing its PINK line—modeled by adult, rail-thin models—to teens, was one of many clothing designers to respond publicly, calling Razek “just another old white guy rewriting other people’s experience and profiting off hate.”
Razek, who is 70, claimed that there is “no interest” in plus-size or trans models. “It’s a lie,” says Hudson emphatically.
Indeed, Plunkett Research estimates that 68 percent of American women are “plus-sized,” while companies like Third Love, Forever 21 and ModCloth are using more plus-sized models than ever before. Hudson, who’s been accused of “promoting obesity,” maintains that weight and health are not always synonymous, and hopes the shift will benefit young girls coming of age in a society that sees skin and breasts as inherently sexual.
The bottom line, though, is that her swimsuit line isn’t for the shamers (whose decision to follow her bikini account she still can’t figure out). “I am trying to reach people who need and want to hear these things, or are also on a self love journey,” says Hudson. Overall, she says, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“One of the sweetest things that people have been doing lately is sending their daughters or their nieces, their young people, and buying them a swimsuit for their birthday,” says Hudson. “And we get to have this relationship that’s like a stepping stone for them finding comfort in their own skin.”
DIY self love and acceptance is a journey, though, and it has its ups and downs. Just as she often posts about the mechanical failures and miscalculations of bus life, and the challenges of being a full-time maker, Hudson is quick to admit that she doesn’t feel amazing in her skin every single minute of every day. “I’ve definitely changed, and I don’t struggle like I used to,” she says, “but, yeah, it’s like 100 percent real life, it’s not going to be perfect all the time.”
Martha Hudson of Luv Martha Swimwear will be at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery on Friday, Dec. 8, and at Amoureuse for the Midtown Craft Crawl on Saturday, Dec. 9. Find her on Instagram at @luv_martha, and online at luvmartha.com.