The dying orange sun sinks slowly into the Pacific, airbrushing the delicate gray clouds a deep scarlet. "Hey, Todd, come look at the sunset," yells Char Landsborough to her husband, a 28-year-old vagabond patriacrh who moves from beach to beach with his wife, two daughters and three dogs.

One of the curious California drifter families, the Landsboroughs have chosen to live in a 1952 school bus refurnished in a neo-gypsy modern - bunk buds, a propane stove for cooking, a woodburner for heat, a sink, hanging plants, a portable potty - and held together, it seems, by no more than bubble gum and pink paint.

Todd Landsborough, comfortably swaddled in a yellow blanket on the floor of the bus, grunts, throws off his wrap, wipes his hands on crusty jeans and climbs out to sniff the salt air and admire the view. The waves roll into a slow, fetal tuck, crest and crash onto the white sand beach of Waddell Creek, 60 miles out of San Francisco.

His blonde and freckled daughters, Heidi, 6, and Melanie, 5, whirl about the bus on their two-wheelers. The lazy black labrador, Bro, suddenly comes alive and snarls a chunk of ear off the cur dog chained to a neighbor's classy Winnebago. There is a brief flurry of eloquent profanity.

"I wouldn't trade this life with anybody," says Landsborough, a part-time roofer who has called the bus home for 18 months. "A 'normal' person likes his nice apartment with central air and a disposal or a home with a patch of grass to mow. No one can understand why we live on the road.

"But I just don't like landlords or (property) taxes. And living in the bus is a good life." He pats the dented behemoth and says, "This bus would probably get us to New York if we wanted to go there . . ."

They don't. The Landsboroughs, along with three friends who also pack their families along the coast in school buses, gypsy-style, are planning to drive to a crafts fair on the Russian River, traveling at night to keep the engine from over-heating with its heavy load of children's toys, bicycles, propane cannisters, firewood, tools, extra water jugs all tossed atop the bus.

At the fair, Char will sell or swap her seashell necklaces, bamboo flutes and cloth belts stitched on the sewing machine tucked behind the driver's seat. She makes the children's clothes and Todd fixes most anything that breaks. They barter for many necessities.

They celebrated a modest vagabond Christmas. There was the traditional turkey with all the trimmings, says Landsborough, but the toys for the kids mostly sported a hand-made trademark: hobby horses nailed together by Todd or dresses sewn by his wife for the girls. They might splurge and adopt another dog. Popcorn and tinsel were strung across the windows for holiday effect.

Their living requirements are relatively few, mostly food. Landsborough sometimes takes a free-lance repair job or puts a roof on a house to pick up the $300 a month he figures it takes to keep the family smiling, the bellies full.

Some of the California drifter families settle in a spot seasonally so the children can attend school and they travel in the summer. Others teach their children themselves, as they have great disdain for schools just as they do for landlords.

For the Landsboroughs, there are no mortgage payments; the bus is paid up. There are no utility bills or city taxes or computerized printouts from the telephone company arriving in the mail. There is no mailbox.

Landsborough needs money mainly for gas - the bus rolls 10 miles on a gallon - insurance and food. Their kitchen often serves as a communal "chuck wagon" for those less fortunate, the beach drifters whose estates consist of sleeping bags and, if they are really uptown, put tents.

Landsborough, an easy-going man with a shock of golden curls and a full beard, never asks the drifters for money. "There's too many people starving in the world," he says. "Food should be shared."

Before the family hit the road, they lived in the redwood outback of the Santa Cruz Hills, renting out various cabins. "We wanted to be free. You only go around one time in this life, so you may as well do what you want."

What Landsborough and other vagabond families want, though, does not often mest with the lifestyle of tax-paying city residents. And the Santa Cruz City Council recently passed an ordinance to move the squatters off 40 acres of vacant land known as light-house field.

"We just didn't want a big tent city," says city manager David Koester, who shuddered at the sight of 500 itinerants living with trucks, school buses and tents. With no running water or toilet facilities, the drifters became a sanitation problem, says Koester, and trampled the trees and bushes. "So we rousted them all out of town," he says. "We had no choice.

"You'd wake up and find some Winnebago parked outside your house with 10 people cooking breakfast and their little boys peeing in your yard," he continues. "They'll do anything to live here near the beaches and the wildnerness in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Up in the hills, they put a mailbox on a stump, get registered to vote, sign up for food stamps and get their welfare checks delivered to the tree stump."

No one seems to know how many such vagabonds have eschewed traditional housing for the open road on a permanent basis. The U.S. Census Bureau only keeps statistics on mobile homes and to analysts addicted to neat numbers, families like the Landsboroughs are statistical ghosts.

Todd Landsborough blanches at the thought of putting the bus on cement blocks and planting petunias around the tail lights. Squatting in a mobile home park, he says, would be as "bourgeois as suburbia."

A decade after the flower and bloom of peace and love, such four-wheel drifters seem anachronisms - emphemeral Flying Dutchmen on the highways to Tom Wolfe's career-minded "me generation."

Elizabeth Hoag, a demographic analysts in the population research division of California's Department of Finance, has no idea how many families roam the open road on even a quasi-permanent basis. "I couldn't even make a guess," she says. "When you take a census, you are going to miss these people because they're out there in their vans or school buses living under a tree somewhere. Tracking them down would be like chasing a shadow."

A new city ordinance banning all overnight camping along the rugged cliffs and beautiful surfing beaches of Santa Cruz - outside of official campgrounds that charge a fee - has forced the drifters to disperse. So the Landsboroughs and a few others decided roll in caravan fashion 13 miles north of town to a site called Waddell Creek, until police insist they move on.

"They chase me from one parking place to another," says 26-year-old Peggy Sadlick, a red-headed welfare mother who cares for her 18-month old son from a 1960 GMC school bus parked next to the Landsboroughs. "The planning commission gets upset because they didn't plan for you; the health department gets upset because they says you're unhealthy and the police chase you off because that's their job. I figure my days are numbered."

The salt air mingles with the aroma of onions, tomatoes, garlic and green peppers sizzling in a homemade spaghetti sause on the stove. Flies buzz about the kitchen and there is sand on the floor. A book of Mother Goose rhymes sits atop a pile of toys in a corner beside a bunk bed. Sadlick sleeps in back on a rumpled queen-sized bed, and, at night, stares up at a giant, psychedelic butterfly painted on the ceiling.

The sun falls beyond the ocean and she throws red sweatshirt over a blue cotton skirt. Silver bangles dangle from her wrists, seashells about her neck. She is barefoot.

"It's a classy way to live," she says. I can wear a silk dress on the beach if I want because I have one in my closet." The only drawback, she explains, is living in such a small space. "It gets cramped, but one of the most beautiful outdoor spots in the world is right out the door. We don't have to depend on the capitalist real estate system because we have our own houses. We just don't own the land to put them on."

Last year, Sadlick traded her 1951 Chevy panel truck and $500 for the 35-foot school bus. She had made or swapped for every utensil inside, lives on $252 a month in welfare and pays $68 for $90 worth of food stamps.

Sadlick figures the government should subsidize families willing to live vagabond lifestyles because they "ease the housing crunch." She decided to live on the road because she could not afford decent housing and didn't want to throw her shared lot in with 15 people in one house. "This is a lot cleaner and more together than most houses, anyway," she says. She uses a portopotty, bathes in streams and dumps her garbage "like a good citizen."

The sight of these buses rumbling along with their belongings jiggling on the roof is enough to turn heads, but Sadlick just shrugs off the stares. "Some people think we're a traveling hippie commune and don't pay our fair share, but we pick up after highclass campers in alligator shoes who throw their garbage out of $75,000 mobile homes."

Her son, says Sadlick, couldn't be happier. "My kid is as well-balanced as any kid in the world. There are plenty of other kids to play with and he loves school buses. If I had to pay big rent, we'd be eating bread and beans."

Like the birds, the vagabonds can roll south in the winter and north in the summer. They can nest when and where they please. And if local officials start bending elbows, the vagabonds can just crank up and move out.

"Everything you see around the buns," says Landsborough, waving at the saw horses, Raggedy Ann dolls logs and shovels, "we can throw on the roof and be gone in 10 minutes."