Selected hitchhiking stories (1/2)
" Yeeeah, I'm hitchhiking! "
I was shouting at my GoPro camera comfortably settled in the passenger's seat. Virgilio, my Couchsurfing host, had decided to give me my first ride out the city of Anchorage in Alaska. I rolled down the window to film a little bit of the landscape passing by which, by the way, was nothing special at this point. A couple of days before, I had landed in what I described in my diary as "a big city with big stores scattered around big streets full of big Americans driving big cars (that they call trucks)" to which I added "the mountain range visible on the horizon gives the place a dramatic look, as for the rest, maybe it's the grayish tones of September but it feels depressing". To be fair, it's not really FULL of big Americans. I was a bit frustrated when I wrote this. I remember feeling overwhelmed and confused – almost in the same way that when I entered China from the west without a real plan in mind – which was twice as strange because I was in a western country where people spoke a language that I'm fluent in. I knew that the Alaska I had in mind, the imaginary Alaska, wouldn't be even close to the real Alaska. That was even one of the first motive that pushed me to do this trip. Actually, one of my favorite thing about traveling is this moment when the collision between my imagination and the reality tears apart a stereotypical and mostly biased image I have of a place to slowly replace it with a more real, sharper impression. And yet, it hits me the same way. Every. Single. Time.
So, yes, technically I wasn't really hitchhiking because I didn't even have to raise my thumb yet. Virgilio seemed to think that my idea of hitchhiking from Alaska all the way south towards Mexico was a silly one. I guess that explains his offer to give me a ride to Wasilla, a town 40 miles further on the way to Denali. Matthew, one of his friends, joined us for breakfast. He looked about the same age as me, somewhere between 25 and 35. Matthew had recently learned he had cancer. I know, it's not something you usually expect to hear at breakfast but I have a tendency to ask a lot of questions and sometimes that's what I get for being too curious. He didn't give me the feeling that there was anything taboo about it so I decided to keep going.
- "How did you realize you had it ?", I asked.
- "I just found a lump one day"
- "What's a lump?"
- "It's like a hard little bump under your skin"
Shit, really, that's it? I thought. You just wake up one morning with a little bump and the next thing you know your doctor is telling you you've got cancer. I didn't really know what to say but I figured he didn't have to go to work for a while so I asked him if he wanted to hitchhike to Denali with me. He laughed and said that he would have done it but he had a BBQ planned in the afternoon – which I thought was kind of a funny answer. Next thing, I was standing alone by the side of the road with my homemade cardboard saying DENALI and my thumb up. Now, I was hitchhiking. After an hour or so, Chris pulled over as I rushed to the passenger's window while doing my best to bring my backpack, camera bag and 10L dry bag along with me. Chris was in his early forties. He was friendly and knowledgeable about Alaska and we chatted about bears and other manly topics all the way to Denali National Park.
After Denali, I decided to hitchhike the Denali Highway which is a secondary, mostly gravel, road. On the map, it looks like the most logical way to go east towards the border with Canada as well as the straightest route as the crow flies. But what motivated me was that it was known to be one of the most scenic drive in Alaska. On the other hand, I had heard there would be almost no traffic except for moose hunters going back and forth looking for the almost nonexistent moose (it was moose hunting season and a hunter himself told me that the moose are not stupid and if you can see plenty by the side of the road out of the hunting season, that's not the case while hunting season is open). Again, I waited one hour or so before a small car pulled over. It was Lex and Rosie, a young couple venturing out for the weekend. They had planned to go hiking and camping along the highway – which, I insist, is not an highway at all, it's a beautiful gravel road going through the wilderness – not so bothered apparently by the overwhelming quantity of hunters driving around on their ATVs. A few minutes later, the three of us were picking blueberries a stone's throw from the road. I filled up a full ziploc with them which made for really nice peanut butter, nutella and blueberry tortilla rolls.
I had spent a full week hiking and camping in complete autonomy across the vast off-trail wilderness of Denali National Park. When you go on a backpacking trip in Denali, there are no trails, you share the land with grizzly, black bears, wolves, caribou, moose and other animals. This inner journey could easily make a story by itself and that's one of the reason why I was ready to cross into Canada. I felt like I had lived my Alaskan experience to an extent that would be hard to match by any other place I could find in Alaska.
A truck pulled over, and a young fella going by the name of William opened the door. "Where you goin' ?", he asked, while munching on his cinnamon roll. "I'm going to the border", I replied, "but anywhere that gets me closer is fine". They were just going back to their farm a few miles down the road but I eagerly accepted the ride while throwing my pack on the back seat. I was in the part of Alaska where turning down rides could mean getting stranded for the day. Just before taking the turn that led to their farm, the grandpa who hadn't spoken much until now offered me to come over to look at it, if I wanted. He uttered it in such a nonchalant way that my first reaction was to decline saying that I would like to try and keep hitchhiking a little further for the day. As I stood by the side of the road, it didn't take long before I started to regret my decision. William had given me concise instructions on how to get there in case I changed my mind so I started walking on the little road. As I approached the farm, I was first greeted by a friendly dog and a the trunk of a tree covered in bison's skulls. Then, I saw a tiny little wooden house pinned on a vast land. And finally, there was William and his grandpa apparently having trouble with the agricultural machine they used to cut willow. That's how I ended up tightening bolts on a farm in the middle of the afternoon in Alaska. Later, William shot a ptarmigan to be eaten as a snack for the evening, showed me their two hundreds bison, two reindeer and a female moose (a cow) that got herself locked inside the pen by mistake. Someone would come in the following days to shoot her for the meat. After that, I decided to leave because William had told me that his grandpa would cut willow for eight hours and then he would replace him for another shift of eight hours , and so forth. They had plenty of work to do so I asked Will to give me a ride to the highway where I could carry on with my hitchhiking quest.
The next encounter was a bit odd. This time, an old man picked me up. He was a veteran and had been dispatched in Germany during the cold war. "I've done my fair share of hitchhiking while I was stationed in Germany", he explained. Again, he wasn't going far but as long as it got me closer to my objective I was happy. It was almost dark as I had spent most of the afternoon on the farm and when I mentioned that I had the intention to set up my tent somewhere in the forest by the side of the road, he glanced at me with respect and said: "I live 7 miles of the road on a small piece of land. You're most welcome to pitch your tent on my property or I can drop you off at the junction as you wish". He seemed friendly and without malice so I decided to accept the offer. He was living in a small little house that if I remember well he had built himself. He had goats, chickens and there was a big storage room as well as something that looked like a barn he was still in the process of building. My first thought when I saw the frames was how could a 73 years old man build that all by himself... but he did. This man, I understood later, wasn't getting many visitors. A beautiful dog, half akita, half husky, was keeping him company.
We weren't even halfway through the owner's tour when he started to tell me about how "the US is going down". "You know what I mean?", looking right into my eyes, "the US is going down and we need to be ready". That's what the storage room was for, it had food and goods for days of forced self-sufficiency. He also showed me a small backpack in the trunk of his truck, ready to go. The disturbing thing about it was that while it sounded like total paranoia, the man was not insane at all. We had interesting conversations after I manage to avoid the new world order topic. As for his political views, I think he was a Trump supporter but I couldn't make sure because what he said about his president gave me an ambiguous feeling. Not that it was of utmost importance but in Europe we tend to see Trump supporters as evil or brainless people while this trip had shown me a different reality. I was reluctant to ask him directly because of the stories he had told me about his life. I was on his good side and I'd rather stay on that one. The stories were about his youth, some from his military life and some from his private life, and involved fights, guns and jail. Left leg broken four times, right leg broken six times. Box of ammo on the front porch. A sign by the door saying "We don't call 911" illustrated by the image of a pistol pointing at you. And yet, here I was, looking at photo album of him in the 70s sitting around a campfire with his Indians friends. In the morning, he dropped me off a few miles down the highway near a campsite and gave me four boxes of Californian sun dried raisins, a can of salmon and a survival blanket. "If they are chasing you, you can use it blanket to hide underneath it and they can't detect you with their heat-sensors cameras", he said in the same tone and manner that someone would say "don't forget to turn off the light before going to sleep". It left me a little disturbed by the dichotomy of the character.
A few hours later, I was already in Tok, a little town 80 miles from the alcan border. I stood right at the exit of a gas station and, for the umpteenth time, I smiled, extended my arm and pointed my thumb to the sky. It didn't take more than a minute before a truck pull over. It was a man about the same age as me. "You ain't gonna kill me ?", he asked, surprisingly enough because to me he looked more threatening than I did. "You ain't gonna rob me ? Got a passport ?", he added. After making sure I had no intention to hurt him, he offered me a ride all the way to Whitehorse which is almost 400 miles. And the best part of it was that he was a totally interesting. We spent a lot of time driving – he would drive almost all day with very few breaks – and we talked about everything. We were almost in Whitehorse when he asked me how far I was going. And after I told him, he offered to give me a ride to Prince George which is another 1'700 miles further! He asked if I could drive but as I didn't have my driving license with me, I offered to give him some compensation for the gas. Deal! *fist bump* "Fucking A!" as he would often say.
You might wonder why I was willing to go that far without stopping. Well, let me tell you there is almost nothing else than trees in the Yukon. Actually there are probably more trees than you and your whole family have ever seen in your entire life – except if you live in North America of course. I don't know how to describe it better. A Syrian immigrant who will appear later in these stories had put it this was when calling his wife to tell the news about his arrival:
" There are more trees in Canada than there are grains of sand in Syria "
Yes, I was already in Canada and on for a 2'000 miles journey with Kyle. He was going back home after a couple of months of forestry work in Alaska. But Kyle wasn't a forester, he was just an incredibly resourceful young man who learned a lot while on the road. He ran away to Australia at the age of eighteen. There, he had to learn how to survive on his own, be able to talk people into giving him a job, dumpster diving to get food and so on. And he is an artist too. He plays the guitar, writes his own songs and lyrics and then records them. Meeting someone who had developed his artistic side as well as his practical side so well had a refreshing effect on me. It rejuvenated my will to learn new things and get down to work on personal projects. And as we talked, I would often pull my phone from my pocket, open the notepad and add something to the list of what I wanted to do when I get home. Sometimes I inspire, sometimes I get inspired. That's how we roll.
You can listen to Kyle's music here: kylemontcunningham.bandcamp.com
This is the first part of selected stories about the good moments
of my hitchhiking trip accross Alaska, Canada & The US West Coast
to be continued...