A chance meeting last week turned a misfortune into a memorable and merry occasion. It also demonstrated that sometimes the best lessons are learned outside the classroom.
Twenty-five students from Kenai Alternative School were returning from an April 16 field trip to Anchorage when a minor mishap brought them to an abrupt halt. Leaving the rest stop at Turnagain Pass, their bus broke through ice in the flooded parking lot and sank up to the front axle. And that was only the beginning.
But what could have been a hassle turned happy, thanks to the Nodlands, a band of adventurers who came along at just the right time.
Although they were unable to free the bus, the family of four produced a sled, balls, water and snacks to keep the stranded students occupied and comfortable. Ultimately, however, their tales of adventure and possibility made an even bigger impression on the teens.
"Attitude makes your experience," said Dennis Dunn, principal at the alternative school.
The Nodlands helped show the teens that people care for each other and inspired them to strive for their dreams, however unconventional or ambitious, he said.
Monday Ed and Cheryl Nodland and their sons, Mitch, 13, and Max, 10, were special guests at the school. The students and staff treated them to lunch and gave them gifts. In return, the Nodlands showed the school a video the family put together of their shared adventure. The lighthearted epic, titled "The Day the Bus Stood Still," got an enthusiastic reception, especially the sequence showing Dunn catching air sledding down the slope near the turnout.
"If anyone tells you you can't do something, don't believe it," Ed told the students.
The Nodlands sold their Seattle area home nearly four years ago and live in a King of the Road recreational vehicle. They have resolved to educate their sons on the road and have family fun in the process.
The family runs a Web site, www.road-school.com, that chronicles their adventures.
Recently, a Japanese camera crew joined them in their travels and filmed a documentary about them. It aired on Japanese television about a month ago.
"It was watched by 10 million viewers," Ed said. "So we get lots of e-mail from Japan now."
The family has visited 44 states and several European countries, following their whims, interests and educational opportunities.
For example, when they studied the history of the U.S. colonial period, they visited Plymouth Plantation. When they studied the Revolutionary War, they visited Boston and Philadelphia. And when they finished reading "Tom Sawyer," they went to Hannibal, Mo., and toured the caves where Mark Twain set his famous story. They have gone to the biker rally in Sturgis, S.D., and Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
They support themselves and their mobile lifestyle through an Internet business Cheryl runs with friends and relatives.
She instigated the change, she said, when she grew frustrated seeing her loved ones leave home every day for work and school. She wanted to find a way to live that would allow the family to spend most of its time sharing experiences. She and Ed became home-school converts.
After their sons completed third and first grades, the family shed its old, more conventional life and became nomadic. Working through an organization called Escapees, that caters to people who live full-time on the road, they ended up with a Texas license plate and post office box.
But home, they explained, is wherever they park.
Since mid-March, that has been Alaska.
The Nodlands drove the Alaska Highway to Fairbanks, to help Cheryl's sister and brother-in-law set up a remote homestead. The families joined forces to transport 14 yearling bison to the new place.
The journey involved driving 150 miles out of town, then switching to snowmachines for 30 miles on the frozen river followed by 20 miles cross country. All while towing the animals, two at a time.
"We got to experience minus 26," Ed said.
Their rig was unhappy with the boreal climate and blew a seal. The weather also complicated their water supply, forcing them to rely on what they could heat up on the stove top for hot water.
"It was interesting," Cheryl said. "For three weeks I didn't take a shower."
Mitch said he decided he preferred the more civilized charms of Anchorage.
Photo courtesy of Nodland family
But Max was enthusiastic about his frontier adventure.
"I got to drive a snowmachine for the first time," he said.
From Fairbanks, the family traveled to Anchorage and then decided to see the Kenai Peninsula.
That is how they happened upon the stuck school bus.
They joined other volunteers, the driver, Dunn and the students in trying to dig or push the bus out, using the numerous tools they carry from their old garage. When that failed, they helped contact the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, which sent a big truck that finally pulled the bus out.
But after everyone left the pass, the Nodlands were astonished to see the same bus backing into a turnout near the junction with the Hope Highway. Its clutch had failed and the students were stranded a second time.
The Nodlands stopped again, offering the tired teens water, snacks and balls for soccer and football. All in all, the family spent about four hours with the students until a replacement bus took them back to Kenai.
The family said their month here makes them want to see more of Alaska. They have decided to stay in the state until the weather warms and more places open to road traffic. They are talking about visiting Valdez, Denali and even coming back to the Kenai Peninsula before they head south again, they said.
Dunn said the Nodlands are welcome at the alternative school anytime, and he appreciates what they did for his students, helping to transform misfortune to fun and friendship.
"It's about the A word: attitude," Dunn said.
"You always have a choice. Our choice was to make the best of it."
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