I hitched a ride from Ft. Nelson, British Columbia to Watson Lake, Yukon with rising stars in the world of runners blogs, Vanessa Runs and Robert “Shacky” Schakelford. They had me count the 30-some caribou, bear, moose, sheep and buffalo along the way. They plan to live the rest of their lives out of an RV as they travel the world.
They are taking time to blog about their lives and their running along the way.
They said I was their second hitchhiker and Vanessa later wrote on her Facebook page she is convinced picking up hitchhikers is safe and interesting.
Shacky is driving as we race a caribou along the Alaska Highway.
Driving into Ft. Nelson, British Columbia from the west you’ll see a large bear and a welcome sign but leaving town you can see the back where the graffiti message is “Hitchhikers Are Bear Food” I stood at that spot all evening, until in was midnight in the land of the midnight sun, and spent the whole next day there too.
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.
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. He likes to use pyrography tools to decorate wood, leather and other materials with his 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. He sells them mostly online. visit adinasjewels.com today if you want to help him out!
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.
Ed “Fast Eddie” Payou tells carnival stories as he pulls cans and bottles from a dumpster along the Alaska Highway in British Columbia.
“The world is but a perpetual see-saw.”
Michel de Montaigne
Hitchhiking the Northern Rockies “Oil Patch” region yesterday, I was picked up by an old Cree Indian with carny stories of the bygone era of his youth.
Now 70 years old, he has a “hole in his heart” and circulation problems in his legs but once he was one of the strongest Cree Indian carnies on the midway, quick with his fists, good with the girls and carrying around a crippling past.
His carny name on British Columbia’s West Coast Carnivals was “Fast Eddie.”
“They said they named me that because, ‘You can knock a guy down and we don’t even see you hitting him.’”
I sometimes feel like I can gauge a man’s strength by his handshake and his wrapped around mine like a steel hitch.
“I hit a guy so hard one time his tooth stuck in my knuckle.”
Did you at least give it back to him Eddie?
“No, I just pulled it out of my knuckle and threw it away.”
Fast Eddie didn’t like telling the fight story, I had to ask him about the themes I find running through the traveling carnivals I’ve worked coast to coast in the United States. (I’m currently hitchhiking to an Alaskan traveling carnival).
Fights, romances and childhoods all came up and Fast Eddie answered but there was no bragging about conquests or romanticizing the past. When Fast Eddie talks about himself, he tells the tale of a flawed man.
Dumpster diving across generations
At my second carnival, at Butler Amusements in Oakland, Ca., a carny I named Rabbit could pick up plastic bottles as we walked without breaking a stride. He collected after shows and dove into dumpsters. When he shared beer in the carny quarters, he’d say dumpsters paid for this.
In that way, Rabbit was a younger version of Fast Eddie. He collects plastic bottles and cans at dumpsters along the Alaska Highway between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson.
Fast Eddie told me about the life a Cree carny in Canada as he reached in with gloves to tear open trash bags from the public dumpsters. He rolled his own cigarettes as he drove and talked about his health.
He needs heart surgery and says the doctor told him, he is living on borrowed time. He is actually living in what he calls a Fort St. John “old folks home.” The old carny still loves to play games but now its bingo at the casino. He now suggests the youth to follow the trend and play online on various platforms like https://www.slotsformoney.com
I often look at carnies and wonder what carny living will do to them in the years to come, Fast Eddie is a Cree Indian version.
Fast Eddie spent “five or six years” on the circuit, traveling throughout the Northwest Territories and eastward. He loved the travel.
Conditions were raw. He slept under rides, inside vans and outside. He used a bucket of water to clean in the morning.
He drank with the other carnies and Cree – there were lots of Cree carnies in those days – and “partied all night and come staggering out the next day.”
If there was a fight with the townies, and there were many, “everybody looked out for each other.”
He knew not to go into town because the cops would throw them in jail on any excuse. If anybody went to jail, the owners would only bail them out “if they needed them.”
Otherwise, the carnival would leave town without them.
Long hours, hard work made them feel ‘like a family,’ he said, though when Fast Eddie talks about ‘family’ he talks about heartbreak.
No romanticizing his youth, he says so much has happened since those days he rarely thinks about them. The only other carny he kept in touch with is dead.
He says his carnival was filled with wild characters and colorful times but no episodes come to mind as he stoically picks trash.
He got good at the job and got paid more to work as a boss in kiddyland, on kids rides.
There he met young single mothers.
Where did you meet them, if you are sleeping under a ride that night, I asked.
“The girls, if they liked you, they’d drop the kids off and come back after,” he said. “We’d go under the truck or into the bushes.”
Some of the girls traveled back to Fast Eddie’s hometown in Fort Nelson in the off season but it never worked out.
Fast Eddie “barely had money for the bus home at the end” of the season, much less bus fare for the girls.
As he smiled the smile of an old man thinking of young women he had known, a heart-shaped tag hung from his rear view mirror.
“Party With Sluts” on one side, on the other, “Big Booty Bitches”
Booze, Dad, children
Fast Eddie paints a nightmarish picture of his childhood and smiles when he thinks of the irony of trying to make kids happy in a traveling carnival’s kiddyland.
“My dad was an alcoholic and didn’t work. There was 12 of us kids,” he said. “When I was growing up, I never had much fun at all … because of my drunken dad, I never learned to be young.”
Fast Eddie dropped out of school when he was in fourth grade. On his recent drivers license exam, he needed someone to read the questions to him because he can’t read or write.
“I got a 93 percent though” he laughs, as if saying – smart, just not enough school.
He went on to work in the Oil Patch’s many mining operations. He worked in a gold mine; as a trucker; as a heavy equipment operator; and as a fire fighter. He hated fire fighting, it paid 75 cents an hour.
His drinking got worse after his carnival days. He didn’t have to go to A.A., he says, all he had to hear was his daughter say, “Daddy, quit drinking. I want to come home.”
He teared up as he told me that line, as if it still makes him sick. But he heard those words almost 30 years ago.
His ‘family’ is now haunted by additions and most of his grandchildren are in foster care.
Bottles of time
We made about eight stops along the Alaska Highway and I helped rummage through the trash for cans and bottles. He estimated he made about $30.
I took pictures and asked deeply personal questions yet like all hitchhiking rides I am frustrated that more can’t be told.
All I could tell from pulling bottles from the trash with him is Fast Eddie slowed down. And in his story bag of ups and downs, is a twirling carnival and the shining image of a young, strong Cree man in charge of a making kiddyland work better than his own.
Apache looks on as Ugly toasts, along the on-ramp to I-15 North out of Butte, Montana.
“We’re not us, we’re two other people,”
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
Ugly and Apache walk the on-ramp up to me with their pit bull Molly the Dog on the end of a rope, Molly by far the cleanest.
They carry cups filled with booze and all variety of hardcore trouble.
Looking back, just two days now, I realize how Ugly and Apache attained such a sticky, dust-of-ages filth – freight trains.
I remember that look from my own time riding freight trains in the 1980’s. It comes from boxcar floors, oil-covered track side patches, airborne freight train soot.
Walking up to me outside Butte, Montana, once again in my carnival/hitchhiking world, I am ready for violence in a blink of an eye.
It might start with a friendly greeting. Still, there is potential for holy hell walking toward me with a pit bull.
I’ve been hitchhiking from Chicago on my way to Alaska to another traveling carnival. They’ve been on a years long loop of brutal freight yards and homeless wandering.
Shortly after we introduced ourselves, a car filled with young Montana men drove by yelling epithets and throwing a fast food bag at us.
Well, the formalities aside, Ugly turns Ugly because trash bags at the head JUST PISSES UGLY OFF!
With Molly the Dog pulling hard on her Buckhead Paws retractable leash, leading the way, Ugly swears up a rainbow of profanity, running a few yards down the road after the car. This wasn’t for show, he hoped they would stop for a bloody dog vs. a**hole showdown.
Throwing items at hobos is called “rocking,” because kids often throw rocks at hobos. It’s called ‘getting rocked.’
Homeless, deadbeat dad or hobo
Returning to Apache and me, Ugly identifies himself as a hobo and when I said I was at the National Hobo Convention once, he and Apache said, “In Britt, Iowa?”
They knew the convention and hobo lore.
In a polite conversation, I would be out of line, but early in this conversation I ask them if they are like classic hobos. Do they go town to town across the country, working or not, getting high until the money runs out?
No smile. No laugh. Just a nod of recognition and a “pretty much.”
Blonde, with defined arms, Apache is drunk as three men. Ugly is tall and road strong. Both are liquid-diet thin.
Apache yells at me, as if angry at not recognizing them as the stars of the open road.
“Carnivals ain’t shit compared to what we live every day.”
Answering my gentle questions, Ugly agrees hopping freight trains is a “subculture” and they know lots of people on the rails. They see each other on the circuit and share a brotherhood of sorts.
Then Apache interrupts and yells, “Are you a cop!” Pointing at my backpack, “Is that (their follow hobo’s) backpack?”
Ugly turns to Apache and lets rip with a full-throttle tirade.
“Shut the f*ck-up Apache, you’re f*cking drunk. I’m taking your f*cking drink. I’m going to punch you in the f*cking face. We’re trying to have a conversation. He’s asking how we make money every day. That’s not (pal’s) backpack. He’s not a cop, we just walked up to him hitchhiking on the road. That’s why they call you Apache, you’re Irish but you have the tolerance of a mosquito.”
(it pays to take notes immediately after conversations)
In our short conversation, Ugly hurls invectives at Apache every second question I ask.
“You’re what we call a ‘Summer Bunny,” Apache says after hearing I once road Seattle-to-Chicago on freight trains, with a bicycle in tow.
After this one, Ugly takes Apache’s booze and pours it into his own and again says he is THIS CLOSE to PUNCHING HIM IN THE FACE.
Each time Ugly yells at Apache, it’s a verbal version of unleashing the hounds.
Apache just looks at me, with a what-else-do-you-want-to-know look. Also, a bit cross-eyed.
He says he has a ‘profession’ and doesn’t have to be homeless and wandering. He was on the film crew of the movie “The Avenger” during filming in Prague for a year and a half. He doesn’t mention what job he might have had – if he was really there and that was really the movie.
Ugly has a ‘profession’ too but it’s when he mentions his kids that he hints at a back story too complicated for our short exchange.
“We do this to see the country. I don’t need to do this, I have a profession. I’m a stage rigger, I build concert stages. I’m not a roadie. A roadie moves sh*t and screws in sh*t. A rigger anchors lighting and climbs and dangles himself on little beams.”
Family life held him back from the road, kept him home bound.
“I didn’t tour with any bands. I have kids. I was in their life. I still have kids. But … Apache, you are so f*cking drunk. We’re going now.”
Love it or leave it ‘Bo
I feel sorry for Apache and chime in with my experience hitchhiking between train rides.
“Sometimes it’s fun hitchhiking drunk,” I said.
“Not when nobody’s picking you up, only when you got a ride,” Ugly rightly said. “This ***hole will pass out (walking) half a mile down the road.”
I took pictures in a hurry, I needed more pictures to get one right. I was just scratching the surface of their stories. But I was glad they were leaving before they saw it fit to rob me.
Then, getting ready to part, their conversation turned to how their freight train riding is heroic. Seeing America on the rails. Daring to be free of family, of money, of care. Keep moving brother.
They aren’t hurting anyone.
“We aren’t stabbing anybody,” Ugly said. “That’s not right. If they f*ck with us. We’ll stab them. Oh, ya. We’ll f*cking stab you if you f*cking take our sh*t or something.”
On cue, a can of soda went flying by our heads from another passing car filled with young Montana men.
Again, Ugly and Molly the Dog went after the car.
The last words I clearly heard Ugly say were a warning and a bit poetic.
“That’s what turns us into stabbing hobos. Come here and say that to me you ***holes. You don’t know me, I could make more than you in a day. That is so f***ed, just because we choose to live the life we choose.”
I heard them later in the distance, when the wind shifted, one hobo swearing up a storm at the other.
On Center Street in Calgary, Canada yesterday, I saw old men panhandling and I wondered what they looked like when they were young.
Were they once good looking, boozy and restless. Did they have partners and a dog. Were they Stan and Ollie, funny and living on a tightrope wire.
Or were they Ugly and Apache with a pit bull, living life in the menacing parlance of the modern North American hobo.
Ugly and Apache see these same old men and know that may be where their headed.
Then it occurred to me, something they didn’t say, Ugly and Apache love this life. Bring it on. Consequences be damned.