All About Healy, Hitchhiking Tips and Tricks, The Journey South, Don't Mess With The Eagles
06/08/2012 65 °F
Four hundred sixty miles is a long way to travel in one day, except by a jet airplane or high-speed train. My plan was to hitchhike this distance, starting from the outskirts of Denali National Park and ending on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula in the town of Homer, Alaska. It was an ambitious goal, but I felt good about my chances. Alaska is a hitchhiking friendly state-a fact I put to use two weeks before when I hitched from Anchorage to Denali National Park (240 miles) in six hours.
I spent the day before I left preparing for the trip. I spread all of my gear out on the deck of the shack, packing it away according to a hitchhiker’s necessity. I buried my slackline and sandals deep, but I kept my raingear and coffee cup accessible. Along with packing, I made a giant hitchhiker’s thumb out of cardboard. I copied the design of a Frenchman that I had met at a coffee shop. He had recently arrived in Denali after hitchhiking his way across Canada. It is useful to have a sign, and if you can incorporate a bit of humor, it can definitely help in catching that ride.
With my packing finished, I joined my nephew who was already four bars deep into a Denali pub crawl. Luckily, he had wanted to go ten miles north to Healy, to tag three of their establishments and I joined the cause. Healy is a small Alaskan town. It is the kind of place where the police department, the medical clinic, the insurance agent, and the bank are all in the same building. In late May, the sun never really sets here, and the golden light lasts for hours on end. These long evening hours make the surrounding mountains and spruce forests glow, and I felt as if I was living in a postcard of “scenic Alaska.” It’s bizarre. At midnight, it feels like it is seven p.m.
At one of the bars, I met a local man by the name of Moe. Moe was an elderly gentleman, his slim body toughened by years of hard work and play. He had silver hair with a light beard. Moe’s face had character. It was deeply tanned with light wrinkles around his eyes. He was a tempered Alaskan, beaten and smoothed down by hundreds of adventures over his lifetime. He drank Budweiser out of the bottle, and talked with a quiet, slightly western accent. While my nephew and his entourage shot pool, I talked with this seasoned old man.
It was time well spent. We talked mostly of his life in Alaska, and some of the scrapes he had been in. “The second time I jumped on the back of a deer from out of a tree, I fell off. When the deer recovered, he looked at me a second, then charged. It was all I could do to get out of his reach by climbing a tree. He was down below me, standing on his hind legs beating on the trunk with his front hooves. I stayed up in that tree for over an hour before he went away. Yeah, I wouldn’t advise jumping on the back of a deer to anyone, not anymore.” When I told him of my plans, he nodded his approval. “You should be all right.” This was a man who had been around, and his confidence gave me hope.
I caught a ride back to the shack with a friend, and wandered off to bed. I had plans to get up early so I could be on the road by seven a.m. At three thirty in the morning, I awoke to the stomping revelry of a drunken dance party taking place on the porch. I heard my nephew’s voice in the din, and I knew they were having fun. I sighed, then smiled. What can you do? I tossed and turned the rest of the night. I finally fell asleep again at five a.m. when the party had ended.
I awoke suddenly from a dream in which a younger version of a friend of mine yelled at me to “Wake up!” I looked at my clock and it read eight a.m. I was “late,” but it didn’t matter. I jumped out of bed, and packed away my final items. I hefted my packs as quietly as I could, and stepped outside. I didn’t feel that well. I was sleepy, slightly hung over, and wishing for a cup of coffee.
The weather looked favorable. It was dry, and the sky was white with high overcast clouds. I pulled on my backpacks, first my expedition pack onto my back. Then I adjusted my smaller daypack across my chest. Fully loaded, I waddled down to the highway. Instead of immediately starting to hitchhike, I followed the roadside bike trail across the Nenano River. I don’t like crossing bridges on busy highways because there is no escape. I felt much safer crossing the river on the trail. Once across, I walked back to the highway. I put on my giant thumb, and started hitching.
I had to walk about a mile before I caught my first ride. It took me thirty miles south to the scattered village of Cantwell. It always feels good to catch that first ride. It gave me a chance to wake up, and get my thoughts in order. My driver dropped me off at a gas station, the only business that was open along the highway. I went in to buy myself a cup of coffee. When I took my first sip of the “black gold” out on the highway, I felt like a new man.
Thus revived, I took a good look at my surroundings. I remembered this stretch of highway; it followed an open valley surrounded on all sides by the snow-capped mountains of the Alaskan Range. Closer to the highway, stands of black spruce broke up the low wetland areas and open tundra. It was a beautiful Alaskan landscape. I smiled that old familiar smile of a man who is supremely happy. I was footloose and carefree, taking on a unique challenge through a magnificent landscape. I was in my element.
It took awhile to catch the next ride. Many people waved and smiled at me, but nobody pulled over to give me a ride. By the look of travelers, they didn’t have a lot of room left in their vehicles for a hitchhiker bearing two bags. When hitchhiking, the less gear you bring with you the better. Drivers might have room for a guy with a small backpack, but asking them to haul you and your kitchen sink generally turns potential rides away.
I didn’t mind. I had fun singing sea shanties aloud as I walked along the road. I was on the look out for wildlife, hoping to see a herd of caribou, or a moose. Finally, after about an hour, a van braked to a stop a hundred yards up the highway. I tried running to catch up to him, but under the weight of my packs, the best I could manage was a hurried plod. I caught up with the van, saying hello, then tossing my burdens into his back seat.
I learned that my new companion was driving all the way down to Anchorage. I was ecstatic. In two rides, I would be covering half the distance to Homer. It was early yet, but I began to get the feeling that my goal might be possible. We passed the afternoon by swapping travel stories, and comparing notes on our Alaskan travels. I gave him what advice I could, let him use my phone, and tried to be a good companion. We stopped at the roadside park that offered a view of Denali. We also stopped at Wal-Mikes, a beauty of a tourist trap found in the small village of Trapper Creek. It was jammed full of tasteful Alaskan mementos, anything from a wolf’s head hat, to a life size cardboard cutout of “the rock star.”
Peter gave me some good insight into the mind of a driver looking at a potential hitchhiker. “Y’know, the reason I stopped was because you reminded me of my son.” I had pulled at his heartstrings by smiling, dressing decently, and looking the part of a young guy on the adventure of a lifetime.
Since Peter didn’t have any time constraints to his day, I asked him to drop me off on the southern outskirts of Anchorage along the side of the busy Seward Highway. It is almost impossible to catch a ride in large cities, especially on busy highways. Having Peter drop me off on the outside of town saved me several hours of walking, or the cost of a cab ride. From where he dropped me off, I had two hundred eleven miles to go. No problem.
My next ride took me down to Girdwood. We followed the narrow and twisting highway along Turnagain Arm, a long stretch of water that reached deep into the surrounding Chugach Mountains. My companions were friendly and comfortable. They had a new puppy that licked my hand every three seconds. Then it collapsed with a sleepy sigh into a puppy nap. They were a sweet old couple, and I smiled when the husband asked his wife, “Can I get you anything, my love?” when we stopped at the Girdwood gas station.
In Girdwood, I caught my best ride of the day with an Alaskan rambler by the name of Greg. We were kindred spirits, and the conversation flowed easily. For fun, he and his buddies spent their time searching for old ghost towns, panning for gold, camping out, and cracking open rocks. He showed me some rocks that he had split open with a hammer that had fossils etched into it. “We hauled ‘em up to the college, and they said they were 65 million years old. Hell, we don’t even know what we are doin’. We just go down to the creek and crack ‘em open.”
Earlier in the day, I found a full roll of duct tape lying in the grass. I picked it up, shoving it into my pack knowing how useful it was. I forgot all about it, until it reappeared while I was riding with Greg. I gave it to him, because he seemed like a guy who would use it. I like to think that it will help him out of a jam sometime, somewhere down the road.
It wasn’t long before I caught my first glimpse of the famous Kenai River. When July comes around the Kenai is jammed full of anglers. There are so many of them, that they are almost elbow to elbow jockeying for position to catch big Salmon that are running up the river to spawn. The river was empty of fishermen on our visit. I enjoyed the chuckling sound of the river over the rocks, surrounded by high foothills covered in springtime greenery.
Greg took me all the way to Soldotna, dropping me off on the western outskirts of town. Greg had hitched before, and knew all about “moon walking”- walking backwards for miles through a town- unable to catch a ride. It was seven twenty in the evening, meaning the sun was still high in the sky. I was getting tired, having traveled well over three hundred miles already. I thought about quitting for the day, knowing I could sleep at the city park campground or even splurge and get a hotel. However, I didn’t want to give up. I would try for another hour and a half to catch a ride. If that failed, then I would hole up for the night.
My persistence paid off, and I caught my final ride of the day. I asked him, “How far are you going? “ “I’m going all the way to Homer, “he replied. I felt a tingle of happiness in my belly. I was going to make it in one day! While we drove, he said that he saw me in Girdwood, and had planned to pick me up after he fueled his truck at the gas station. When he pulled back onto the highway, I was already gone. Luckily, I had stayed ahead of him.
Chris was a good man. He gave me some advice on what to do in Homer, where to eat, good hiking trails, and the like. This stretch of highway travels along the western coast of the Kenai Peninsula. As we drove along, I caught quick glimpses of the ocean and distant mountain range on the far side of the inlet. It was gorgeous. Chris noticed my cameras and asked if I would like to go down to see the ocean at Anchor Point. Since I didn’t have to worry about a ride, I agreed. It would be good to see the ocean again.
What happened next was something I have never seen before.
While we were enjoying the evening views of the ocean, a seagull that was standing near a group of four bald eagles on the beach flew away. One of the eagles began to chase it, and a high speed aerial acrobatics display ensued. Despite its tight turns and evasive maneuvers, the eagle easily kept up with the gull.
Chris and I watched in amazement as another eagle joined the first, intensifying the harassment of the gull. The birds zipped around right in front of us, not more than a hundred twenty feet away. Two more eagles joined the chase, and the seagull was soon knocked down into the ocean. The eagles continued to strafe the unlucky gull, snaring it in their razor sharp talons. The gull was hurt, and it was all it could do to dive away from the eagles when they came close.
At one point, one of the eagles landed on the hapless gull. The gull rolled, and the eagle ended up in the water. After a few jabs with its talons, that eagle began slowly swimming to shore while the others continued to harass the gull. I saw one of the eagles pick up the bird and carry it a short distance before letting go, tumbling it into the water once again.
We didn’t stay to watch the end, but we knew the outcome. I may not have much, but I do have timing.
Chris and I continued south to Homer. I had sent a message to my friend letting her know that I was close. We planned a rendezvous at Subway, where I happily piled out of the truck. I hugged my friend, and said, “Hello.” I grabbed my gear, thanking Chris for the ride. My friends took me back to their home, made me a delicious three-course dinner of fresh salad, a giant hamburger, with a glass of red wine from a mason jar. I inhaled my food. I had not eaten much that day, and I was a proud member of the clean plate club. I took a shower, and for the second time that day, I felt like a new man.
My last thought before I passed out, was that I had done it. I had hitchhiked almost five hundred miles in eleven and a half hours, by far my best day of hitchhiking ever. It would not have been possible without the help of Matt, Peter, Duncan, Greg and Chris. Thank you.
Hitchhiking at its basic element is simply one person helping another person in need. I went to sleep feeling good about my fellow men.