Sunday, June 11, 2006

was hitchhiking north to alaska, but had to go through miles and miles of northern canada before i even got to the start of the alcan highway, apparently. in one area, called the peace river valley, everyone was outside...it was summer, you had to get outside now while you could; the roads were full, and i got rides easily. i met a lot of natives, but often they would be going to a lonely road that cut off the main highway and would leave me out on the highway. at dawson creek i was aware that i was at the beginning of the alcan so i stocked up a little, but again, got a ride only about five miles out of town where a road cut off into the bush.

scrub pines, various thick bush type overgrowth- there were bears all over the place. I tried to hang up my food at night so i'd smell less like a peanut butter sandwich. at one point i was hitchhiking with a guy named pierre, but he had limited english, so we played catch a little, waited for cars that were pretty rare. we were at one of these roads that cut off into the bush. also had a vague sense that weather was coming, and that the mountains were coming. but, at the moment, we weren't going anywhere. the sun was going down. it was beginning to rain.

it was one of the truisms of hitchhiking that in terms of getting anywhere, i really was better off not being with another person- much as i might like his company, at least in the short term- he was probably preventing me from getting any rides, anywhere. i considered just walking down the road, or turning around and going back to town. but i didn't. we also had little to say to each other, it being hard work to communicate, so we hung around getting wet and putting our thumb out. Finally a car stopped. It was a kind of Mercedes- fancy, yet kind of old; it wasn't clear to me how old. It had a foreign license plate, not canada, not us. the guy inside was irish. said he was going to alaska. a nervous kind of guy, somewhat impatient. As soon as we got into the car it started raining much harder. maybe this was because we had gone ten or twenty miles up the road.

rain in the north country is overpowering- it takes over everything. just like snow must be, in the winter. you just give in to it, you can't beat it. we, however, didn't know that, and kept driving as long as we could. eventually someone stopped the guy- he rolled down the window to talk to him. they told him that the road was washed out in the mountains ahead. we could either go on a short ways, to a town called fort nelson, and wait for them to repair the road, or return to dawson creek. they didn't know how long it would take to fix the road. obviously it would have to stop raining first.

at that time almost the entire alcan was gravel. many of the cars and trucks had metal screens to protect them from the flying rocks. this guy didn't have one. we just sat in this old mercedes trying to decide what to do. outside it poured. in the morning the sun came up on a flooded town of fort nelson and the guy with the mercedes, and pierre, had disappeared. having found a town, and a little rest, people were trying to decide what to do. most of the people i met were travellers. slowly i met a few people who were not too busy to wait for the road to be fixed; they'd wait in fort nelson or wherever, and continue on as soon as they could. to me it was a lifetime opportunity to get there; if i'd turn back, would i ever come this way again? i was in it for keeps, not going back, at least, not now. on the edge of town was a small, open cabin that was being occupied by travellers like myself. you can put your stuff here, someone said. i don't think anyone will steal it, but the cabin will protect it from rain. mostly there's always someone around. we're just looking for some food, so we can make a fire and maybe have something to eat.

there wasn't much to the town itself. the hockey rink dominated it; was connected to a city-center-type place, with a store nearby and a few other places. having gotten food and supplies, i returned to the cabin and we cooked up a huge dinner and shared stories. a guy was travelling with a young child. some people ran into other people that they knew and we joined a group of friends. nobody knew much about the highway, only what we heard second or third hand from other travellers. it sounded like seven to ten days. lots of people were just going back, disappearing. some people said things like, i only had a two week vacation, i'm not going to spend it all in this town.

after dinner i laid my sleeping bag out on the north country peat, not far from the cabin, and looked up. millions of stars, northern lights, a light show. this would become a common night time thing. night wasn't long up there- it didn't even start until two or three- but it was dazzling. i couldn't sleep. lights swirled around, making the million-star background fade. the canadians among us were more used to it. to me it was phenomenal.

the news in the morning was that entire trucks had just dropped their supplies at the city hall building. they were bound for alaska, but weren't going to make it- what was seven to ten days in the world of perishables? hundreds of loaves of bread, dozens of eggs, vegetables, etc. someone negotiated with whoever was in charge and got permission to cook large dinners for all takers. i didn't learn about it right away- i had gone on a walk and almost got mauled by a bear- but found out that dinner that night was a community affair- in the town hall, made of food from various trucks- and cooked by some of the stranded travellers. a can was out so that continued donations would make the next meal possible.

in the morning we made french toast- hundreds of them, because now everyone had heard of it, and there were a lot of stranded travellers. the milk, eggs, and bread came from the trucks- whole truckloads of them. the syrup came from the local store. people were friendly. even the locals had rarely seen the civic building full, without some kind of divisive issue. the money in the cans bought more supplies- they system worked pretty well. i could cook and it seemed like i had a job for a few days- i could eat, rest, sew some clothes, and work for food. and at night- the stars, and the lights. there would be a campfire, stories, music, and some people got off into recreational pursuits, but i would just back away from the fire, lie down on my sleeping bag, and look up. the stars, the northern lights- i couldn't see how people slept at all, in the northern summer, when darkness was so short, and so dazzling.

seven days flew by- or maybe it was more than that- and when the highway reopened, a guy with a kayak on a volkswagen had made room for me and we headed up the gravel road and past the washout. the volkswagen (bug) was close to the road and it seemed a little to close to the gravel. maybe i weighed too much and was wearing out the shocks; i felt like i'd eaten quite a bit of french toast. this guy liked to stop at ice-cold pristine mountain blue lakes in the yukon, push his kayak out into it and flip it around so that his head was, for a moment, facing down into the lake. he offered to let me do it too, but i declined, though i tried kayaking. rested now, i enjoyed the stark northern scenery and watched for other people we knew, while we were on the road. the incident had, in fact, made a community of travellers, which from then on knew each other-and would meet each other occasionally, at various places on the road in alaska. with a story to tell, of a week or so in a small northern town, waiting for the highway to be fixed. i guess everyone saw it differently. to me, the fact that it took nine or ten days out of my summer was not really a problem. here today, gone tomorrow, we did, at least, share a little slice of north-country summer, and now were on the road to whitehorse- a town with more bars than people. it did seem like beers and bears were the two biggest dangers- but, in the north country, you always have to keep a wary eye on the weather.

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