Leonard Nietupski was a farmer before he had the courage to live the life he dreamed of when he was a kid on a yellow school bus. He now lives in a yellow school bus in the shadow of Pink Mountain, British Columbia.
“Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
It’s been hours hitchhiking at the lonely 147 mile mark of the Alaska Highway in British Columbia and I spend my time watching Arctic butterflies flying by me on a hot light wind.
To one side is an abandoned restaurant, Mom’s Kitchen, and a young chestnut quarter horse tied up outside grazing and flapping its tail against the flies.
To the other side is Pink Mountain. which lights up a bright pink during the fireweed bloom.
I wondered how a dazzling pink mountain would appear in the thick green, forested eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
I squinted to see jaw-dropping yellow and black wing patterns on the Arctic butterflies. I’m always struck by how butterflies whirl and flip with the wind yet are able to travel long distances.
This area of the highway is known for big wildlife sightings but I keep seeing varieties of butterflies.
I’m hitchhiking from my Chicago traveling carnival to another in Anchorage, as part of my year spent working in carnivals. I’m living on carnival wages, thus the hitchhiking.
The Arctic butterflies made me think of my last driver on my San Francisco to New Jersey hitchhike. I had a lot of fun with Anthony Aardeme, a lepidopterologist getting his Ph.D at Princeton University.
I asked him what words or concepts I could use if I wanted to impress beautiful women that I’m a butterfly scientist.
He studies Tiger Swallowtails so he told me to talk diapause, ZW sex determination, the Xerces Society and hunting with nets not guns.
Remember that fellas.
He also said that when lepidopterologists get together to party they don’t:
1-Substitute the F-bomb for the word “very” in sentences as in “Have a F***ing nice day.”
2-Fight at the drop of the hat
3-Regularly get drunk and high.
I said maybe that’s why there aren’t many of his types in traveling carnivals.
Eccentric or just happy man
Then a beat-up 1992 Ford F150 pick-up comes driving slowly toward me and I look in the front window but can only see a worn-out felt hat tipped back and those eyes blazing through the cracked windshield.
Those eyes belong to Leonard Nietupski. He doesn’t flash his look all the time, but sometimes his eyes open wide and remind me of a crazy gold miner living alone in the mountains.
He took me down the road then veered off into the woods without first telling me that we were taking a side trip, to see him happy home.
The gravel access road in unmarked and at some point I thought this would be a great place to drive me if you wanted to kill me and leave me in the woods.
“Hope not,” I thought.
To the Good Life
Around a corner appeared a burned out corpse of a school bus.
Behind that, another 1979 yellow school bus with a white tent to the left.
Leonard doesn’t know where the ironic, charred bus came from but the yellow school bus is “the school bus couple’s” home.
A one-eyed, black Belgian Shepard mix named Zena came leaping and hopping out of the bushes to greet us.
Leonard, 63, and wife Stephanie, 34, have been living in this bus since he bought it for $1,000 in 2003 and he couldn’t be prouder.
She works in a convenience store on Pink Mountain and locals call them the “school bus couple,” he says.
However, what strikes me is the remote, hidden, almost hermit-like setting.
The school bus is almost gutted, it still has a driver’s seat and one original seat row but the rest was built or installed by the couple.
There’s a bed in back; kitchen counter and sink; dining table; a propane oven; a refrigerator; and an iron wood-burning stove with a chimney protruding from the bus roof.
There’s a TV for videos, paperback novels in shelves and the dining table is the centerpiece of the room.
“My wife likes to say, ‘There’s the bedroom. There’s the kitchen. There’s our living room.’”
Leonard is pointing out the bus window at the nearby forest and his tent, which also has a couch, a TV for videos and wood working tools.
“We get all sorts of wildlife walking through our living room – moose, deer, elk, bear, bobcats, links.”
There’s a separate woodworking shop at the back of the bus too, with heaving saws and other equipment. Leonard makes jewelry boxes to make hard currency, something the two of them don’t make much of.
Leonard hunts the mountains for big game and has a open pit grill on the cement slab where the bus is parked.
The bus is on the site of a former communications tower so the cement flooring keeps the bus level.
They both collect “raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries and loganberries” for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Their expenses are small. They have no cell phone, television reception or real estate taxes. They barter for much of what they need.
“If I can’t pay for it in cash,” he said. “I don’t need it. I don’t want it … When you barter and trade, you don’t use cash so there’s no taxes. When the government says to you you have to pay taxes on that, I can say, ‘Kiss my A**, I traded for that.”
Still, his isolation means, he said, “80 percent of the time I don’t know what day of the week it is.”
Leonard raised cows on a farm most of his adult life but says he knew he wanted to live on a bus “since I was this tall,” he said, indicating he was in grade school.
I imagined a grade school kid, shoulder to shoulder on the bus to school, thinking, “Someday I’m going to live on a bus.”
The bus still works and they intend to pick-up and drive it to another spot somewhere in Canada in the coming years.
I asked if he won the lottery, what would he do with the money. Buy a big mansion? Travel in four-star hotels?
He said he’d buy solar panels to help with the electricity, currently supplied by a gas-powered generator.
Still, Leonard didn’t laugh like a crazy prospector or say anything more outrageous than he loves living a minimalist lifestyle with his young wife.
Leonard is so proud of his school bus home and lifestyle he had to pick-up a random stranger beside the road and drive him to see how great life is to him.
When it came time to get back to hitchhiking beside the road, his truck tire went flat so I helped change the tire.
As we talked, he noticed I love to travel and writing is a hard way to make a living so he suggested that I too buy a school bus and live on the road. From forest to forest. From town to town.
Chrysalis to Mountain Butterfly
Little did I know that a couple days later I’d be picked up in the Northern Rockies by Venessa Run and Robert “Shacky” Schakelford, an ultra-marathoning and blogging couple living out of their RV.
They have every intention of living out of vehicles for the rest of their foreseeable lives.
They too had chucked their normal day jobs and were going to live life on the road, running ultra-marathons and blogging at local WiFi hotspots.
Here’s their blog about their day with a hitchhiker – me.
Their dream lives suit them. Where others might see a lack of money, they can’t see why people live any other way.
They aren’t homeless, their home is the road, the outdoors, wherever they drive next.
Leonard is living in his vehicle too but in some of the most beautiful mountain forests in the world and it’s a place he finds his happiness.
“It’s the cheapest way of living you can find,” Leonard said. “If you don’t care for too many people around you. This is the way to live because you’ll be left alone. That’s what I like about it, it’s peaceful. Tranquil.”
Leonard drove me to the steep grade of a nameless mountain, at a brake-check turn-off. I got my backpack and sleeping bag out, this was a good spot for hitchhiking, I thought.
“I like to live good,” he said, as I exited.
As he drove away happy in his old Ford, leaving a cloud of mountain dust, I saw another Arctic butterfly cross my path.
This story is being filed from Fast Eddie’s in Tok, Alaska, on the border of the Yukon.