The snow was drifting across the road in an almost complete whiteout as we neared the top of the pass. All of a sudden the rear tires began to lose traction and we slowly slide sideways towards the edge.
That winter day in 1976 the road conditions were less then ideal as we attempted to summit Trutch Mt in British Columbia. We were on our way north up the Alaska Highway in our newly converted 1958 school bus.
Those kinds of adventures seemed normal back then and were a part of our lives that we often look back on and refer to as some of the most exciting days of our youth, a wing and a prayer, caution to the wind, free as a bird, no AAA.
With todays exploding trends of off-grid living, boon docking and the nomadic movement, we thought it would fun to look back at the 17 wonderful years we spent traveling and living in a bus.
In the 1960’s I had been inspired by the movement otherwise known as the counterculture revolution.
For me this rebellion was not so much a way to breakaway from the establishment but more of an excuse to leave the stereotypical American lifestyle behind and head for the mountains.
The seed was planted when I briefly attended the Human Be-In in San Fransisco in early 1967 and witnessed dozens of buses that people had converted into homes on wheels.
These wonderful old buses were painted wild colors and were perfect for the communal lifestyle that was quickly becoming common place.
There was one bus in particular that stood out. Ken Kesey had bought a retired yellow school bus and inside had built a kitchen, a bathroom, and homemade bunks for a dozen people. They had also cut a hole in the roof for access to an observation turret that was made from an old washing machine drum.
It was a time of free spirited people peacefully living together, listening to some very inspired music, protesting a War and living life on their own terms.
Then in 1969 I waited in line for almost 12 hours to see the second premier showing of Easy Rider in Westwood California. In line with us were hundreds of Hippies, chanting Hare Krishnas and other socially unconventional types of people.
No movie since has effected and inspired me more than that of Easy Rider. At 19 years old, it ignited a fire in me to hit the open road and find America.
Later that summer my best friend and I jumped into his yellow 1957 VW van and hit the road. Between the two of us we had a total of $490 and no plans other than to discover new places, meet new people, climb mountains and go to Woodstock.
On that excursion we drove over 20,000 miles circumnavigating all four corners of the America but a failed flywheel seal stopped our attempt to attend one of the most famous music festivals of all time. In retrospect, it probably worked out for the best.
Then in 1973 my brother and I hitchhiked to Alaska where I met and married Denise and together our desire to see the world became acute.
We quickly realized there was no reason to purchase a permanent sticks and bricks home, the normal next step in those days. So instead we decided to build a home on wheels.
We found an old 30′ bus in Southern California that at one point had been used as a fresh crab shack. After purchasing it for $2,800 we proceeded to gut the interior and build our first home.
Using lots of recycled lumber it became a warm and comfortable place. We installed an 8′ skylight that tilted open to let in fresh air and to better enjoy the night sky.
Long before the internet and Amazon we would often use a couple of great sources for off-grid living supplies. The Whole Earth Catalog was an inspiration for the burgeoning do-it-yourself builder and Real Goods located in Hopland California was another great place to find solar panels and other remote living needs.
Having a home on wheels enabled us to move freely from one job to another during the summer months.
With the first snow in the fall (termination dust) we would store the bus and travel the world for 6 months. In the spring we would return to Alaska from some remote part of the earth and again work for another 6 months, this cycle continued for many years…
This lifestyle was made easy because our home was on wheels.
In the mid 70’s we got jobs on Kodiak Island and transported our bus on the Alaska Ferry where we spent the summer living on this lush green island. We were lucky to find a place to park for the summer at Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site.
Our campsite was perched on the edge of a 300′ cliff overlooking the Gulf of Alaska. We would wake in the morning and watch whales, puffins and sea otters frolic in the surf below.
In the late 70’s Denise got a job managing a large fruit stand at the junction of two major highways in the Matanuska Valley. We parked the bus in a green field behind the fruit stand that had fantastic views of the Chugach Mountains.
For entertainment we set up a full-size volleyball court next to the bus and enjoyed all night games under the midnight sun.
In 1978 I got a full time job in Anchorage and we decided to spend the winter. At the time our good friends Willie and Alice were building a new home in Palmer.
They allowed us to park our bus on their land that winter and it was a winter we will never forget with the temperature occasionally dipping to -30. Installing New Engine In Palmer 1978
In 1980 I returned to the seasonal lifestyle with the National Park Service in Denali National Park (at that time McKinley National Park). Later we purchased land just outside the park, where we had found a permanent place to park our home on wheels.
While I worked for the Park Service Denise started her own business and became locally know as the “The Fruit Lady”, another interesting story yet to be told.
We continued to travel the world in the winter months and worked in Denali in the summers. We began construction of a new home right next to the bus in 1987.
Because we traveled each winter it took about 7 years to finish our new home. During this period we purchased a wood fired Hot Tub and kept it fired with construction scraps.
Today our bus still resides next to our home in Denali. Since it was parked in 1983 it has endured many harsh winters. It currently looks a little worn on the exterior but it continues to serve as a guest house for many of our friends and family.
In retrospect we have been very lucky people. Not only were we born in a country that allowed us to travel freely and live the lifestyle we desired, but we were also lucky enough to have spent our youth in a time when life was simpler, before the internet, before cell phones, before instant access.
To top it all off, we may have never had the chance to see the world if it had not been for the seasonal Alaskan lifestyle and having a house on wheels.
“Real adventure is defined best as a journey from which you may not come back alive, and certainly not as the same person.” – Yvon Chouinard
Live Update: I will be picking up our 4×4 expedition truck in Billings, MT soon. The plan is to drive it to SoCal and then back to Alaska sometime this fall. Yes it looks as though we will be spending the winter in Denali. Should be fun…
Keep you posted