Merle Coldwell wanted to show his sweetheart the wonders of America last summer before she went blind – a grand gesture for a man of limited financial means and a weak heart.
Coldwell didn’t let those obstacles get in the way: He bought an old, yellow school bus, named it Gracie, and went to work in two metered parking spots outside the Dresden Apartments along North Monroe Street in Spokane. He painted it white and red, like a Valentine. Coldwell raised the roof and covered the sides with cedar shingles.
Every weld, every nail was guided by his singular purpose: to get on the road by summer with Neoma Smith, who had glaucoma and cataracts and whom he called his wife although they were never legally married. Their first destinations would be the pounding surf of Oregon and the soaring redwoods of California.
The deep snows delivered a few setbacks, but Coldwell kept at it – piquing the interest and agitation of neighbors, some who called the bus a jalopy, an eyesore that hogged precious parking spaces.
Then Coldwell’s dream disappeared. Smith abruptly left him last spring, according to friends and family. Not long after that, Coldwell’s heart quit. He died July 1.
Though his life was filled with difficulty, he left behind friends and family with fond memories.
“Sometimes things don’t work out the way maybe they should,” said Lonnie Cantrell, a friend of Coldwell’s who was helping him re-engineer the bus into a home on wheels.
Coldwell served seven tours in Vietnam – three in combat – before coming home with a heart condition.
The bus is now parked and for sale at the Spokane Valley home of Coldwell’s uncle, Weston Withers, who sells homemade sauerkraut out of his basement and boasts a life filled with travel and adventure.
“It’s a shame what happened with Merle,” Withers said.
He hopes to sell the bus, emptied of belongings.
One possible buyer is an out-of-town man who wants to make and sell knives on the road, Withers said.
Coldwell’s half-sister Patricia Halliday remembers meeting him for the first time; both were adults.
“We had a great time. I hope he found peace,” she said.
Cantrell will honor a last wish, scattering Coldwell’s ashes among his beloved redwoods.
“Merle was a mystery in many ways,” Cantrell said. “But he was a good man.”