Hitchhike Alaska

This is a piece I wrote two summers ago about a particularly bad hitchhiking experience.  

Hitchhiking isn't what it used to be, or maybe it is and I have forgotten. There exists in my mind a romantic notion about Alaskan hospitality regarding hitchhiking. I have many childhood memories of my dad picking exotic people from the side of the road and hearing for the first time strange accents, and stories from unknown origins about unimagined lands from somewhere, obviously east of Tok, which was where the known world ended for me then. Some of these strangers stayed on our homestead for protracted periods of time and became friends, others got off at Carlson Creek pointed their thumbs and were never seen again, leaving only their mystery and good impressions on my formative brain.


As an adult I have hitchhiked somewhere between quite a bit and a lot. My late teens and early twenties were full of long distance road trips, seeing America, Mexico, and Alaska through the windshields of strangers vehicles. I am proud of some of these adventures and often cite them with more reverence than other more physically challenging human powered trips. Like the time I caught a ride out of Chitna in a Super Cub, or having my first real(ish) conversation in spanish with a patient Mexican truck driver on the road to Guatemala. An encapsulation of my feelings could be expressed by saying, that what's so great about hitchhiking is that you never know what to expect and often it turns out better than you could have imagined.


These days most of my hitchhiking comes in the form of finishing a wilderness trip that deposits me on to a road system and then thumbing it back to the car. Even though these trips are often short I have made many friends this way. More often, it is a great opportunity to hear a point of view from someone that I otherwise may have never met.


As a philosophy, I believe everyone should hitchhike some, regardless of weather you have a vehicle or not. At the very least it teaches you empathy for the poor soul who you passed by that night it was raining hard, but the Phil Collins song you were playing just reached the crescendo where the drums really kick in and you didn't want some stranger blowing it, so you pretended to look at something off to the left as you sprayed them with a puddle and commenced to rock out. Beyond empathy, is the mystery of the unknown. Rarely if ever is this a dangerous proposition. Topics of conversation in the past have enlightened me to a breadth of issues - pertaining to but not limited to: U.F.O's, reptiles controlling the united states government, international jet liners spraying an assortment of chemicals on the hapless populace, the Mayan Calendar and what it says about 2012, crop circles, the John Birch society, marriage, fishing, children, the environment, the World Trade Organization.... But often the conversations are less hectic and in general quite neighborly.


As a part time hitchhiker I have discovered some patterns. There are certain types of drivers that almost never pick up roadside travelers regardless of weather, time of day, distance of travel and appearance. In Alaska it can be summed up into one group - tourists. People driving R.V.'s, rental cars, and almost anyone towing a trailer with a boat. This seems to be an oversight on the part of the tourist for an obvious reason - if you pick up a local for the low low price of free you can have a tour guide to help get insight into the state. I have heard stories of people arriving in Glenallen, looking out to Mount Drum and asking locals if what they were looking at was Denali, only to be told that they were on the wrong road and looking east toward the Wrangle Mountains. This and other oversights could easily be avoided with mutual aid. If we could get the Chamber of Commerce on this issue we could be on our way to becoming a greener state with no capital investment required.


Two days ago my partner and I rode with friends from our home in Homer to the Kenai River. Our friends live in Anchorage and we all wanted to packraft the Kenai Canyon. The plan was for us all to paddle together, hike the trail from Skilak Lake back to the highway and then Kim and I would thumb it back. The day was amazing and the canyon did not disappoint.  We split ways around 9:00 pm which would seem late but in the month of July there are still many hours of direct sun light. 


Our first ride deposited us in Soldotna, and then we got two more rides in short order that brought us as far a Happy Valley - still roughly 40 miles shy of home. And then the rides stopped. As it got darker we realized our chances were becoming slimmer and slimmer. 'What kind of person would be hitchhiking at this hour?' people must be thinking. 'Maybe crack addicts or rapists'. It is hard to convince people that you are a good person in a few fleeting seconds even in good light, but nearly impossible in the dark. It was time for plan B. We decided to "camp" through the dark time and resume thumbing once it became light again in a few hours. We had not left home with intentions of camping and were very limited in our bivouac equipment. Inflated packrafts make great sleeping pads, but damp dry suits are a poor substitute for sleeping bags. As the dark time became darker a light offshore breeze picked up and it became apparent that sleep would not come. Plan C. was to build a fire. We must have looked even more cracked to the few mid-night highway cruisers. "Why didn't you call me?" a chipper friend asked. A. because it would be rude, B. because I can't stand to loose faith in my society I told him.


8:00 am the next morning we wearily walked our down our boardwalk to home and bed. We were both loopy from lack of sleep and felt a little rattled by our misfortune. Why in the hell did it take us 11 hours to get to Homer from Cooper Landing? I don't want to be afraid to hitchhike in the future for fear that it may take some absurd amount of time. I don't want to view society as selfish fear motivated isolationists. I don't want Alaska to travel further down the path of assimilation. We are a unique state with eccentricities that we should celebrate and hitchhiking is a great opportunity for drivers and riders alike to show theirs off.  I pick up people all the time and always will. Please don't be afraid to do the same. 


Spread the word.