The following week I began my journey home. I had parted ways with Yoni a couple weeks earlier so my return to California would be a solo trek. Fortunately one of my coworkers at the fishery in Seward was driving up to Anchorage so I rode with him. He drove one of those little Le Cars which is just a tin can on wheels. An hour or so up the road we rounded a curve and there was a moose in the road. I hadn’t seen a moose before and I was amazed; it was enormous. I thought our best bet might be to drive under it, and I still think we might have made it had we tried, but instead, the moose took a step to the right, our tiny car evaded to the left, and we just missed each other. The rest of the drive north was uneventful.
I spent that night in my tent outside Palmer, about forty miles northeast of Anchorage. The next morning was beautiful, clear and sunny and my spirits were high. Rather than foraging for food in the dumpster behind the grocery store, I decided to splurge and go inside and buy a few supplies for my trip home. I bought a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, some garlic salt and an apple. The apple was magnificent, brilliant ruby red and as large as my outstretched hand. As much as I had grown accustom to dumpster diving for my food this summer it was still a joy to have food I didn’t have to examine first before eating. If I found a head of cauliflower or broccoli in a dumpster most of the outside had to be removed first to get at the core which was still edible; most fruit and vegetables found in the garbage had to be treated this way, cutting away what was bad and devouring what little was left. But this big apple was special, I could see it was perfect, without a blemish or bruise, and fully intact. I knew this was going to be a great day: it was warm, I was dry, and I had my apple.
I set myself up on the side of the road just outside of town and prepared to hitchhike to Skagway, seven-hundred seventy miles east, where my plan was to take the ferry back south to Seattle. Across the road there was a pasture with several beautiful horses grazing. One large brown horse caught my eye and I walked up to the fence to say hello. He approached the barbed wire from the other side and stood quietly while I stroked his head and neck. I fed him a couple handfuls of grass from my side of the fence, which were beyond his reach, but his eye was on my apple. I had just begun to eat it as I crossed the road to visit him. He liked the grass fine but I could tell he preferred apples, and I couldn’t blame him for wanting mine; it was a wonderful crisp, juicy and sweet apple. I hadn’t had a good piece of fruit in a while and was savoring it, but he looked sad watching me bite into the large red fruit and this made me uncomfortable. I held the fruit firmly in my hand and reached it out across the fence so he could take a bite. He tried to take a larger bite than I was offering, so I pulled it back. We looked each other in the eyes and tried again. I reached out again and this time he took a smaller bite. “Good” I told him as I took another bite, which would be my last. I held out the fruit to him again but he moved deftly this time, and before I could pull back, he yanked the entire thing out of my hand, turned, and ran away. I think he was laughing at me as he trotted away, but I held no hard feelings towards him. I couldn’t blame him, it was a spectacular piece of fruit that he had taken, and I had offered it.
The highways connecting most of the towns between Anchorage and Skagway are just two-lane roads with little traffic. I was accustomed to waiting quite a while for rides on the Kenai Peninsula when Yoni and I had been travelling between Kenai and Seward looking for work. However, out this way, between Anchorage and Tok there was a lot less traffic. I learned quickly that if I didn’t get a ride from a passing opportunity, I may not get another chance the rest of the day; six hours could easily go by before I would see another vehicle and one day I didn’t see a vehicle at all. To increase my chances of getting a ride I decided to juggle rocks when a vehicle approached as I waited on the side of the road. I believed this made me look friendly and non-threatening. Who could be afraid of a juggler, I reasoned.
One late evening, I was standing at the intersection of two highways, almost exactly midway between Palmer and Tok. It had been a long day, with few opportunities, so when a guy in a pickup with a camper on the back stopped and said he’d take me all the rest of the way to Tok, I was relieved. It was about a three hour drive so I settled into the passenger seat to relax and enjoy the ride. It was a beautiful drive as we made our way through miles and miles of snowy landscape. Our headlights illuminating rows and rows of small conifers covered in snow as we rounded curves and undulated up and down across the terrain. Though it was August it felt like Christmas, with all of these little snow-covered trees lighting up as we passed.
Before he picked me up he must have been drinking. He was loose and feeling good, but he wasn’t driving very well. It was a windy road, and he was having trouble staying on it. It didn’t help things when he pulled out a handgun from under his seat and placed in between us and starting playing with it. I suggested that maybe I should drive the rest of the way but he wasn’t aware that he was drunk. Everything was normal from his perspective. From mine however, it didn’t look like we’d make it to Tok. Thankfully there weren’t any other vehicles, and most of the way the roads were flanked with heavy snowdrifts, so if we left the road there was a good chance we’d have a relatively soft landing. But then we’d be stuck in the snow in the middle of nowhere. We drove some time like this, barely staying on the asphalt until I was able to convince him to stop and check a sound I heard coming from the back of the camper. We both got out and took a look. He was getting tired from the alcohol, so after I pretended to repair the imaginary problem, I persuaded him to get in the passenger seat so he could get a little sleep. He liked this idea, so I drove uneventfully the rest of the way to his home in Tok while he slumped, passed out against the passenger window.
When we arrived at his home a few hours later, he was wide awake again and as we pulled up to the house I could see he was agitated. We drove through his front yard littered with junk and parked near the front door. I could see a couple of other guys in the living room through the window and they looked like trouble. I had a bad feeling about this so as we entered the house I left my backpack outside just around the front corner of the house. Without even taking a moment to say hello, as we entered the house, my host starting yelling at the other guys. They yelled back and it escalated rapidly. I excused myself to the restroom and walked down the hallway while they continued to argue. I continued past the bathroom to the back slider and let myself quietly into the back yard. After slowly sliding the door shut behind me I quickly ran around to my backpack and then out to the street and into town.
Tok is a small town, and it was after midnight, so I was alone as I walked under the stars. It wasn’t long before I saw a small hotel with a light on in the front office and an older woman at the desk. I asked her if there was any place I could pitch my tent behind the hotel, or if I could stay in one of the outbuildings on the property. I explained that I didn’t have money for a room but needed to find a safe place to stay for the night, preferably off the street in case my driver and his buddies came looking for me. After some thought, and some hesitation, she called to her husband to show me a room in the barn out back. It was a dark and cold storage room but it had an old bed with a mattress in one corner and they let me stay the night there for free. I had one of the better night’s sleep of my entire summer and woke to sunlight streaming in through a crack in the curtains.
I thanked the couple for helping me and walked out to the highway to begin looking for a ride to Skagway, five-hundred miles to the southeast. This was a difficult place to get a ride. I stood by the side of the road all day, smiling at cars, juggling stones, and hoping someone would stop. One couple in a long RV passed me heading south, and gave me smiles as they passed, but that was all, they didn’t stop. It was around ten that night that I finally gave up and decided to walk. Tetlin Junction was the next little town, about twelve miles away and I figured I could get there by the early morning, or find a place to pitch my tent out of town. I just wanted to make some progress after standing in one place all day.
It was another beautiful starlit night as I started my walk to Tetlin Junction, and it was cold. But not cold enough to suppress the mosquitos. Mosquitos are a big problem in Alaska and they seem to be everywhere, but in some places they are worse than others. Here, this night, the mosquitos were as numerous as the stars in the sky, or as countless as the sands of the sea. I couldn’t get away from them as I walked, and quickly I had bites all over my face. I was able to protect most of my body but I had no good protection for my face so soon I began to feel bites on top of previous bites. It was demoralizing and maddening and I had no option but to keep walking. I considered pitching my tent and seeking refuge but I was too tired to find a place to pitch it and I also didn’t want to stop walking. At least by walking the mosquitos seemed to diminish a little, but when I stopped walking they converged on me like wolves on a dead animal. If I stopped in one place for too long, they too might devour me. It was a long walk, but eventually I made it to Tetlin Junction. I barely remember where I fell asleep that night, but I did someplace, and the next morning I tried my luck again on the side of the road, hoping to find a ride to Skagway.
The couple in the RV that had passed me the day before, drove past again and this time they stopped. I hadn’t been out there for more than ten minutes when they stopped for me; it was either a miracle or a mirage. I wasn’t sure which, but when I ran up to their window, and they invited me into their RV I thanked God for my good fortune. When they told me they would take me the entire way to Skagway I decided it was a miracle.
(to be continued)