They explained how they had wanted to stop for me the day before when they had seen me in Tok, but since they were staying at the RV Park in town it didn’t make sense to pick me up. They apologized to me about that, but then, when they saw me again this morning they were happy to have another chance to give me a ride. I was grateful they had generous hearts and took a chance on picking me up. Though I smiled and I juggled while hitchhiking, to put people at ease, I was pretty rough looking, with an unkempt beard, worn clothing and long hair that was dreadlocked, and not nicely dreadlocked, but the un-manicured kind that looks like vermin might be living in there. I knew that I was a safe person and wouldn’t hurt anyone, but I couldn’t expect others to know that just by looking at me.
The three of us had a lovely time on the trip down to Skagway. They welcomed me and made me feel like family; and quickly we were sharing many details from our lives with one another. She had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and was only given a year to live so the couple was on what they expected would be their last long vacation together. She was incredibly upbeat and cheery about life and met all of it with a smile. In fact, her symbol was the round yellow smiley face; she had them everywhere in the RV, on her coffee mug, her shirt, as stickers on the RV, and on her sweatshirt. They were both so pleasant, and she was so trusting and kind, that I felt very guilty for what I put them through near the end of the day.
The drive to Skagway crosses the US-Canada border twice. The northern crossing into Canada was uneventful but as we crossed back into the US, just north of Skagway, I ran into some trouble. The border police pulled the RV to the side and asked the couple a few questions about me. When they realized I was a hitchhiker and not part of the couple’s family, they asked me gather my belongings and follow them into the building, while the couple sat and waited for me to return.
Inside the building the two officers assigned to me, had me put my backpack on the counter and proceeded to pull everything out for an inspection. Their first query was why was I carrying so many stones in my backpack? I almost said, “It’s because I’m a stoner” because I thought that would be funny and lighten the mood, but I thought better of it when I saw the ill-humor on their faces. I had found quite a few rocks in Alaska that I liked and thought were interesting so I packed them along with me to bring home as souvenirs. I had between twenty and twenty-five pounds of rocks in my backpack that I had been carrying around with me a good part of the summer. Thankfully they didn’t find any serious crime in this and they let me keep them. But when they pulled out the forgotten film canister stuffed into a side pocket, and found it half-full with white powder, their faces grew even more serious and I sensed trouble.
I quickly explained that it was only baking soda which my mom had wanted me to bring with me for the summer. They looked at me with total skepticism and unbelief. I assured them it was only baking soda and offered to try some of it right there in front of them, and they could try it too, if they didn’t believe me. They weren’t interested, but had some chemical tests instead, which they could run to determine what it was. They ran several tests on the powder, which took well over an hour, but the results were inconclusive. They couldn’t tell what it was, which struck me funny, but they weren’t going to give it back to me. I was free to leave.
I returned to the couple in the RV and apologized for keeping them so long and explained what had happened. I promised them the white powder wasn’t anything illegal and we continued into Skagway together. When we said our goodbyes I was saddened knowing that I would never see them again. I never saw the people I hitched with again so it is no surprise, but this goodbye touched on something more terminal. I knew she was dying and in the face of that realization I was lost, unprepared, and unqualified to express anything useful or satisfying. I loved her smiley faces, and her smiling face, and after they drove away; I wept.