21st June 2019
Megan dropped me to the grocery store shortly after 8am, as she and Oceana drove to the local school. Since Tok was a small town, with one shop, two gas stations, and a few restaurants, all directly off the highway, I reckoned I’d be fine to start hitchhiking anywhere. There were only two directions the cars could be heading.
I set down my bags, wrote ‘Tetlin’ on my writing pad in big black letters, held out my thumb, and waited. It had been easy to hitchhike into Tok along this highway, so I figured it should be easy to hitchhike out.
With the morning sun climbing higher and hotter behind my back, I stood, and waited, and waited. Several cars were driving by per minute, without any pulling over. Most just drove by; some nodded or waved or returned my thumbs up (which I always found patronising); and some gestured to show they were only making small trips.
Half an hour went by. An hour went by. Ninety minutes. Two hours. My legs and shoulders were getting sore. The back of my neck was starting to burn, despite the suncream I’d applied. I’d been picked up so quickly, by six different people, on this same highway from Fairbanks to Tok; so what was I doing wrong now?
I started watching the cars that drove by, to see where they were heading after not giving me a lift. I realised, two and a half hours in, that I was standing in the wrong spot. For every six cars that drove past me, five weren’t even leaving the town. They were diverting off onto small gravel roads, leading to the few cabins and RV trailer parks on the eastern outskirts of town.
Hauling my heavy backpack a kilometre down the highway, I tried not to build up too much of a sweat, as I walked past the gravel roads, to a spot where I may have better luck. Here, although only a fraction as many cars were passing me, each one was actually heading my direction.
My luck didn’t improve. Car after car sped by, without stopping. I had plans to make it to Whitehorse in Canada by the evening, a seven and a half hour drive, not including however long it may take me to cross the border. If I had to wait this long for each new ride, there was no chance I’d make it.
Just before 11am, almost two and a half hours after starting, a silver SUV pulled over in front of me.
“Hey,” I called into the the rolled-down passenger window. “Are you heading up the road?”
“Yeah,” replied the late-middle-aged man. “Jump in.”
“I can’t get you to Tetlin,” he told me once I’d stuffed my bags in the back, and climbed into the front. “But I can drop you at the turn off. I’m heading to the border.”
“Oh, well I’m actually looking to get to the border,” I said. “I just wrote ‘Tetlin’ because I thought it was up the road. Would it be possible for me to ride with you to Canada?”
The man looked at me hesitantly, having pulled over with the expectation of driving me a short distance, not a long one.
“Yeah, I can take you to the border,” he said.
“Awesome! Thanks! Where in Canada are you headed?” I asked.
“I’m meeting my brothers in Whitehorse,” he answered, slightly reluctantly.
“Wow, okay, well I’m actually trying to get to Whitehorse this evening. Could I maybe drive with you the whole way?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” he said, seemingly unsure about the prospect of being stuck with this stranger for the next eight hours. “As long as you’re not any trouble.”
Once we set off, and started chatting, the man realised I wasn’t a troublemaker. Ben, a blacksmith living in a tiny rural village near Delta Junction, was off on a five day hiking and camping trip with two of his three brothers, in the northern Canadian wilderness.
A reserved man, I had to ask Ben a lot of questions to find out about his upbringing in Pennsylvania, and his family scattered throughout Canada and the US, and his two daughters living in Seattle, and his life here in Alaska. In return, he asked me a few questions about what path through life had brought me from my home in Ireland, to that quiet stretch of highway on the outskirts of Tok.
Like the rest of Alaska, the landscapes we passed on our drive to Canada were beautiful. Ben pulled over a few times, to take photos of snow-capped mountains, and thick coniferous forests, and deep blue lakes, as we wove our way through valleys and ridges.
As we approached the Canadian border, I started to get slightly nervous. I’d applied for and received an electronic visa months ago, and had thought myself all set. Last night however, when checking the email, I’d realised that the visa was only applicable when arriving by plane.
Wikitravel.com, my usual resource for international border information, had seemed to suggest that as an Irish citizen, I should be able to cross into Canada without needing a visa. I still wasn’t fully certain, however. At best, I’d be waved on through, having spent $7 on the electronic visa unnecessarily. At worst, I’d be denied entry into the country, and have to hitchhike back to Tok, to plan my next move.
As we pulled up to the customs checkpoint, a few kilometres past the actual border, I handed Ben my passport, who handed them to the young, solidly-built man, standing inside the booth. Based on advice from friends, and on my own experience crossing overland into Canada once before, I knew to expect a very thorough interrogation, delivered in the style of casual conversation.
Slightly leaning over Ben, to get closer to the booth, I answered every question honestly.
“How do you two know each other?”
“Where did you fly into?”
“How did you get from Anchorage to here?”
“Did you hitchhike the whole way?”
“Where are you heading today?”
“Where are you going next?”
“Are you going to hitchhike the whole way?”
“Do you know anyone in Canada?”
“How long will you spend in Vancouver?”
“How will you get across to Toronto?”
“Where will you go after Toronto?”
“How long in total will you be in Canada?”
“How will you be leaving Canada?”
“Where will you be crossing into the US?”
“When will you be going back to Ireland?”
“Why didn’t you rent a car?”
“How much cash do you have on you?”
“How much money do you have in the bank?”
“You understand you can’t work in Canada?”
After grilling Ben equally as hard about his hiking plans with his brother, the border agent asked if either of us were carrying any alcohol, cannabis, firearms, fresh meat or vegetables, or pepper spray. I answered ‘yes’ to this last one, expecting my $20 can of bear spray to be confiscated. Fortunately though, the man just stamped and handed us back our passports, bid us a good day, and waved us on through.
With another five hours to drive before Whitehorse, Ben and I had plenty of time to discuss life, travel, family, and politics. Ben told me that he’d voted Trump back in 2016, since he’d wanted to see a radical change in his country, rather than the ‘business as usual’ approach he saw in Clinton. He told me that he had experienced global warming first-hand, over his thirty-six years living in Alaska, but wasn’t entirely convinced that human pollution was to blame, pointing out that the Vikings had farmed Greenland, during a warm period a millennium ago.
He argued that the liberals in California and New York were hopelessly out of touch with the realities of life outside their bubbles, taking particular aim at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democrat’s celebrity congresswoman. Even though I disagreed with a lot of Ben’s opinions, I had no doubt they were all coming from a place of sincerity, and a wish to do what’s best for his state, his country, and the world.
Around 7pm, with our eight hours together having being full of pleasant conversation, we reached Whitehorse. The city of 20,000 people sat on the large Yukon River, surrounded by forest and hills on all sides. Ben dropped me off Downtown, next to a cafe where I could find free WiFi. I thanked him for the lift, and he thanked me for the company.
I hadn’t managed to find a CouchSurfing host in Whitehorse, but I had managed to get one host who’d had to turn down my request, to ask her friend to take me. Jun, a Japanese business student working on Canadian permanent residency, picked me up from outside the cafe, and offered me a choice: I could be dropped back to Jun’s apartment, to get a good night’s sleep; or I could join him as he drove out of the city, to go to a friend’s birthday party in a wood cabin in the forest.
Around twenty of us showed up to the small cabin, a fifteen minute drive into the woods outside the city. Jordan, the energetic local celebrating his 35th birthday, had invited quite an interesting group of his local friends. As we stood around the campfire drinking our beers, an Englishman demonstrated how to crack a bullwhip, a Punjabi man led a traditional Indian dance routine, a local organic farmer talked passionately about his experience as a Dungeons and Dragons Dungeonmaster, and Jordan rang in the Summer Solstice by playing Lion King classics on his bagpipes.
By midnight, my long day of hitchhiking was catching up with me. Exhausted, I said my goodbyes, and slipped off to a nearby cabin, owned by Jun’s friend who’d connected us, to try to get a few hours sleep on the couch.