The Alaska Range in the evening
In the summer of 1992, I worked as a newspaper reporter in Sitka, Alaska. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Just before I began that seasonal position, I was able to tour south central Alaska, all by, yes, hitchhiking. It was perhaps safer back in the day, though there was always a risk that the driver was a character with a dark past and a possibly psychotic future. I did meet some strange and colorful folks on the trip I took. In less than two weeks, I hitched from Haines, to Valdez, to Homer, to Anchorage, to Denali, to Fairbanks, to Tok, to Whitehorse, and finally to Skagway, where I caught the ferry back to Sitka.
I copied down a section of my travel journal from that adventure. What transpired is, to my best ability, faithfully captured. In Alaska and the Yukon, you just can’t make some things up. The people and place are just beyond the imagination. I begin my journal entry just after I was dropped off about 30 miles from Fairbanks, under the arctic evening light, surrounded by nothing but mosquitos and open sky and empty road.
Thursday May 28, 1992:
I spent 45 minutes waiting. At around 10:45 p.m., I was still hoping for yet another ride, with residual evening light still around me. It came in a Grateful Dead branded, red VW van. I said hello to Scott, a 21-year-old drug user and snowboarder and his mellow dog Wilson. Scott was leaving Alaska. He had enough of the work on a boat. He did the black cod run and quit. He had hated boat work. He said he threw up all over the place.
Scott had a few stories and was easy with his smiles. His ratty, shoulder-length brown hair and stubble made him look a bit like a Dharma bum. He said two wanted criminals, who supposedly had murdered three teens, almost killed him a few days back. He talked about the suicide of his friend too.
We drove past Delta Junction and started looking for campsites. He said he had to get back to the border crossing at Sweet Grass, Mont., to make a court date. He had paid $700 in bail after the border guards took apart his van and found 65 hits of acid in a deck of cards that came with the bus when he bought it, he claimed. The whole experience bummed him out, he said. Now he was smoking the last of his Alaska Thunderfuck weed and cleaning the van up. I didn’t want to hit the border with him.
We found a spot and set his van up for crashing. He stretched a cot across the front cab, where I crashed. He had the bed. Outside the van we could hear the hum of thousands of mossies. Some picked us off inside the van too. I slept roughly, waking at 3 a.m. with a chill and scrunched in my tiny compartment.
Friday, May 29, 1992
Tok, Alaska, welcome sign
I awoke exhausted at 6 a.m. Scott made us pancakes and eggs. Delicious stuff. We hit the road at 7 a.m. and rolled into Tok. We stopped at the North Star restaurant, where I made my first stop crossing the border two weeks earlier. The woman at the counter remembered me. The hot shower was a delight, followed by hot coffee.
Scott was cleaning his van. He told me he planned to get to Beaver Creek by the end of the day. I told him I had more miles to cover. He promised he would pick me up if he saw me.
I was on the road by 10:30 a.m. A sky blue V-8, Ford F-150 pickup pulled over. The driver, Bill, said he was a geologist and miner from Whitehorse and offered me a ride all the way to his home. Score!
First we bummed around town looking for maps where he wanted to stake claims. He showed me a pure gold nugget hanging from his neck. We hit the road an hour later, with that F-150 cruising at high speed. He loved to floor that puppy, even after the State Troopers pulled him over and gave him a $60 ticket.
Bill was about 35. He studied mining formally for three years at a university. He loved his work, staking claims and prospecting with his father. He smiled and laughed a lot. His Canadian “ehs” rolled frequently from his lips.
We were searched by the Canadian border service guards and let through. Once in the Yukon Territory, we stopped at Beaver Creek to collect some “shit” that he and his dad had accumulated. This included a snowmobile and buckets of other gear for his prospecting work.
Off we went again. We travelled through Burwash Creek, Gold Nugget Creek—places where he had prospected and worked, he said. If was as if the entire Elias mountain range was his own private domain. He knew it well.
We stopped again at a restaurant of cranky, large female friend named Rebecca. She had acne. We ate date cake and drank coffee. That’s all I ever seemed to do up here: eat sweet food and drink cups of coffee to stay warm and awake.
It was a beautiful drive on a lovely day. We stopped again to pick up even more stuff at an abandoned miner’s cabin. This time torch rods, wood, tools, and lanterns. Off we sped again.
We rolled into Haine’s junction at 6 p.m., just in time to meet his cousin at a local bar. There were about eight guys drinking beer and smoking. They ranged between 35 and 60. They looked a bit unkempt, but tough. Not the kind of guys to tussle with in a bar fight.
His cousin was drunk. He slurred out curses in his greetings. What happened next was pure Canada. Drinks and bullshit and bushels of “ehs.” We got out of there in 45 minutes, only to spend another 15 minutes at the mobile home of still another cousin. Finally we headed to Whitehorse.
Bill’s Ford was leaving smoke in the road as we sped way over the speeding limit. We passed through magnificent scenery of soft mountains and spruce forests. It reminded me a lot of Montana. Bill thought the same.
Near White Pass, the high country
Whitehorse, the Yukon capital, has about 90 percent of the territory’s people. It is a semi-industrial town, lying at the col of the valley. Bill took me to a spot by a campground on the highway out of town. There I waited 20 minutes. Right when I wanted to bag it, a green truck stopped. I met Rudy of the Yukon Security Forces.
I asked Rudy about his accent. He said he originally came from Holland. We started talking, and Rudy began with his army service stories, when he was stationed in Indonesia on Java and Sumatra between 1945 and 1949. He described his army days like a Vietnam vet. He loved it there, eating native food and re-enlisting to serve in a company where he was the only European.
He talked about handguns, which he didn’t carry. He said he’d carry one if he can use it. Shoot first, ask questions later. That was the way it worked in Indonesia, he said. He had orders to clear villages, to stop enemy columns from entering an area. It left him changed.
He said his first wife couldn’t understand what he felt. He said in the early 1960s he knew America could not win the Vietnam War. He told me that he is never going back, even though it was his favorite place in the world. Now he lives in his second favorite place, the Yukon.
I got off at the campgrounds, which were swarmed. A bunch of yahoos played loud music and drank beer. Typical Canadian. I got to sleep at midnight.