On a recent 41-degree and overcast morning in Duluth, there sat the red SunSpot bus, parked against a curb in the East Hillside neighborhood and emitting exactly zero of the 10,000 lumens of light it once did — just the kind of thing to counteract the gray day.
It's the end of the road for the light-therapy bus DIYed by Sue and Katherine York and seemingly the only vehicle of its kind. The twin sisters had long talked about a mobile Vitamin D distributor to combat seasonal affective disorder, and for four years, it was a go. SunSpot toured the region, parking at schools, office buildings, assisted living facilities, vegan restaurants and cider houses, offering 30-minute bursts of light and warmth, tea and healthy snacks, and maybe even a ThighMaster workout, for $5 a pop.
Business was good at the start of 2020. The York sisters, also known as the Sol Sisters, had made more money than in previous years, and the calendar was booked with light-delivery gigs and contracts with public service organizations around the region.
"Holy Toledo, we had taken off," Katherine recalled thinking. "We're being considered a necessity, not a novelty. Then, March 16, it was like, 'OK….'"
With the pandemic came guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the York sisters couldn't match. They could spray high octane alcohol on the surfaces, make the place clean, but they couldn't offer a 6-foot bubble between light-seekers on the 16-passenger bus.
"And that was that," Katherine said.
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The Sol Sisters grew up in Chicago, then Florida, and in adulthood spent decades living 3,000 miles apart. Katherine was in San Francisco, working as an archivist and concert promoter and celebrating the vibrant arts scene; Sue was in Chicago with a big idea.
"That's where I was, dreaming about the SunSpot for a million thousand years because I was seasonally depressed and suffering from Vitamin D deficiency, for sure," she said. "I was daydreaming and came up with the idea of a SunSpot.
"A mobile rescue unit was definitely the plan. When you're depressed and feel like crap, sometimes you need help to come to you."
Sue moved to Duluth in the early 2000s. Her husband, Doug Hatten, died in 2009. Five years later, Katherine joined her on a chilly November day with straight-line winds. San Francisco had changed from peace-love-creativity to the dot-com scene, Katherine said, and she wanted to be closer to Sue and the York-Hatten teenagers.
And she wanted to help manifest SunSpot.
"I packed it all up in a 24-footer and came to Duluth, Minnesota," she said.
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In its past life, the SunSpot vehicle was an Alabama city bus that the York sisters found in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where it had been converted to mobile lodging for a family following a young, up-and-coming stock car racer.
The red bus has large, yellow sunbursts on the side and back. They tricked it out with booth-style seating and modified restaurant tables, a Coke Cola refrigerator and a retired beverage cart from an airline. They used old blue jeans for insulation, painted the walls and added sunny sticker decorations and flowers. They added UVB lighting, which is available at pet supply stores, and Aurora LightPad Minis, the bright LEDs found in light boxes.
In DIYing the SunSpot, they learned about Velcro and tiles that can withstand heat and how to keep it all in place when traveling from Duluth to, say, the Fond du Lac reservation for an afternoon gig with students.
They kept the bus’ handrails, and during a recent visit, Sue swung from them — as she used to do when they waited for people to board.
There was always free tea, Wi-Fi, conversation. There were healthy snacks available for purchase.
"And games," said Sue.
"Massage units," Katherine added.
"Mini puzzles that were all Van Gogh," Sue said, musing that the artist struggled with mental illness and perhaps needed more Vitamin D.
"Speed Scrabble," said Katherine, then: "It was always a party on the bus."
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In retrospect, there are things the York sisters would do differently. In prioritizing a bus without rust, they bought a diesel — which proved to be a pain to keep running in the winter.
And there are ways the world could have worked differently: insurance companies offering the same weight for light therapy as they do for gym memberships, more referrals from the local health industry, more financial support for the small business, an acknowledgement from researchers studying Vitamin D deficiency.
"We had expectations that were different than reality," Sue said. "It takes a lot of guts for people to approach and come indoors. They think it's a tanning salon."
This is a Minnesota thing, Katherine is convinced.
"If we were in San Francisco, I could have had that bus at any stoplight, and people would have pulled open the doors just to see what's going on inside," she said.
And then came the final straw: repairs to a top-of-the-line generator that turned out to be a lemon, they said.
"People enjoy our company," Katherine said, her sister spilling with laughter. "They find many ways to get us back to (the diesel shop). Our mechanics want to see us every week; the generator dudes want to see us every week.
"If it takes money, so be it."
By the time Katherine posted that the bus was for sale on the SunSpot Facebook page, there was already a sale in the works: a local writer with plans to travel with the bus — a sale that was scheduled to be finalized over Memorial Day weekend.
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Sue and Katherine are idea people with eyes toward wellness and community. They fill in each other's sentences and send each other into great gusts of laughter with just the keyword at the start of a story. They are hospitable, offering tea and scones to visitors, and comfortable.
Katherine described her sister as "the bravest person I know," a teacher and fantastic mother. Sue described Katherine as a huge personality, full of love and full of life. Together they are:
"A lot of fun," Sue said. "Sometimes too much."
During an interview, everyone sat comfortably in a circle on the floor surrounded by Katherine's collection of paintings, signage and sculptures.
Since ending the SunSpot era, Sue has gone on to work at Hoops Brewing Co. Katherine is still plotting her next move. She likes the idea of creating a space to celebrate women's milestones.
The Yorks talk about opening a brick-and-mortar version of SunSpot where they can offer dance parties like they used to throw at the Flame Nightclub in Duluth, interrupting the episodes of "Ellen" that played on the bar television in addition to light therapy. They would approach business differently, with clearly identified roles and autonomy.
In the past two years the SunSpot had taken off, they said, and they were having a lot of fun. Among the best moments were regular gigs at Duluth Cider.
"Booze can be a depressant," Katherine said, "but not with 16 people on the bus as your new friends and Katherine and Sue as your hosts, and you're singing."