Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Slate Creek Trail

Recently, I set off on a two-day, 24-mile hike down the Slate Creek Trail--the only trail anywhere near Coldfoot. Nothing dramatic happened, but here are a few photos.

The Slate Creek Trail (also called the Chandalar Trail) is a mining road. There is still some mining activity in the area. Four-fifths of the trail was graded smooth by the large trucks they drive to their mines from Coldfoot, but one-fifth of the trail was purely in the Creek, so I had many, many creek crossings. (Nothing too taxing, as the water level never rose past my knees.)

Wolf scat. I also saw tons of moose prints and several grizzly tracks.

The creek was narrow, meandering around cliff faces like the one above, but after rounding a corner I came upon a giant ice field, called "Aufeis," which is layered ice that, as the temperatures warm, melts into a creek or river. I walked atop the ice and could hear water gushing beneath me. Sometimes I'd hear the crash of thunder, but it only hunks of ice plopping into the creek bed somewhere else. In places, there are little creeks atop the Aufeis, like the one below, which had a yellowish tint for some reason.

After getting off the ice, the mosquitoes attacked me at once. I wore a headnet, long sleeves, and and pants, so they focused mainly on my hands and on my deltoids, where my backpack stretches my shirt tight against my skin, making it easy for them to get through my clothing. I had to slap my shoulders every few seconds, killing 10 at a time, leaving the jellied remains of fruitless genocides on my shoulders.

The pictures below don't do justice to how bad the mosquitoes are in the arctic. (FYI: They're especially bad in the arctic because beneath the ground there is a layer of "permafrost," or frozen ground," which prevents water from seeping through, as it does everywhere else. Because of the permafrost, puddles and ponds and lakes form everywhere, which is perfect habitat for those sons of bitches.)

Here's my tent which I set up atop a knoll next to my destination: Winer Lake--the headwaters of Slate Creek.

I love being in my tent because then it's my turn to torment the mosquitoes. When they're inside, they're easy killing. I like to catch them on my screen door, because when I swipe them across it, it's like running them over a cheese-grater, and they're easy to dismember. Sometimes, for those who haven't gotten in, I hold my arm just millimeters from their noses, just to intensify their blood lust and get their panties in a wad.

Can you espy the moose?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

How to hitchhike FAQ

I’ve recently been trading emails with a young man who is thinking about hitchhiking up to Alaska. Inspired by those emails, I’ve decided to write this “how to.” I’ve styled this entry as an FAQ, though I should note that I haven’t actually been asked many of these questions, and I certainly haven’t been asked them frequently.

I should also note that while I have hitched for over 8,000 miles across many states and provinces, I do not, by any means, consider myself an “expert.” For anyone looking for serious hitchhiking advice, I suggest digihitch.com, which is online community of hitchhikers—many of whom make my mileage look miniscule.

*One more word about this post before I get to the actual advice: I believe that sometimes one can over-prepare before embarking on an adventure. Sometimes we plan and prepare so much that we feel obligated to take the path we planned rather than the one fate seems to want us to follow. So I offer this advice with some reluctance as I feel that “learning on one’s own” is one of the greatest joys of doing anything. But sometimes one needs a push, or someone to say “It’s possible; you can do it.” So this post is my way of saying “It’s possible; you can do it.”

**Okay, one more word. This post would more accurately be titled “How to long-distance hitchhike through the U.S. and Canada” because I know nothing about hitching elsewhere. If you plan on hhing through Europe or South America or anywhere other than English-speaking North America, I strongly suggest getting advice elsewhere.

I’ve asked many of my drivers, out of curiosity, “Why did you pick me up?” The advice I give below is based entirely on the answers they gave in addition to the tactics I used that contributed most to my success.

Is hitchhiking easy?

Yes. Very much so. I went on a 5,500 hitchhike (hh) from Alaska to New York in 2007 in fourteen days, and 2,500 miles from Mississippi to New York with my then-girlfriend in 2008 in 25 days (we were in no hurry). I’d posit that anybody can hitch a ride, but, like anything else, it gets easier the more you do it.

Where should I hitch rides?

Firstly, you want to do it in relatively safe places, like a thruway rest stop, a thruway entrance ramp, or on a highway just outside of town. You want to be in a place where you’ll feel safe even if you don’t get a ride by nightfall. In other words, you don’t want to be close to a city, where there are little to no places to camp.

It’s crucial that you pick a place where:

(1) The driver is going slow enough to see your sign [ideally less than 30 mph], and
(2) the driver has plenty of space to comfortably pull over going at that speed.

(Drivers, of course, are going very slow on ramps and at rest stops.) Just after a stop light at the end of a town or city is also a good place because, at that red light, they will be able to see your sign and get a good look at you, affording them a moment to contemplate picking you up.

Should I use my thumb or sign?

I’ve used my thumb only once or twice. I’ve been told and I’ve discovered that it takes a lot longer to get a ride using only your thumb. Instead, I strongly encourage using a sign. A sign communicates a couple things to your driver: it says that you’re not just some aimless drifter, but that you’re going somewhere and that you have a plan and that, because of these things, you’re likely to be more responsible and trustworthy. Plus, when the driver sees the town’s name (“Charleston”), and recognizes that he’s going to or through that town, he’ll be more likely to help because he knows he will be able to help.

How do I make a sign?

Find cardboard. You can get cardboard at any gas station or McDonalds or just about wherever. Just ask someone working there for an old box, and they’ll be happy to give you as much cardboard as you want. Make your signs really effin’ big. Use the whole box. They should be, at minimum, two feet tall and three feet wide. The bigger the better. And your writing should be very big and legible. A black marker will work, but I use crayons because

(1) there is no ink so you won't run out,
(2) the colors are more eye-catching, and
(3) they communicate friendliness to your driver in a way that a black marker can’t.

Always think about your driver. To pick you up, he needs to see

(1) where you’re going based on your sign, and
(2) he needs to get the impression that—from the looks of you—you won’t kill or harm him. So having a big legible sign makes things easier for him.

What town/direction should I make my sign out to?

There is a complex art to this, which you’ll learn by trial, error, and common sense. If you’re going 1,000 miles in one direction, sometimes it’s a lot easier to use one directional sign (“north”) over and over again, rather than making a new one for every next town on the map (“Charleston”). Drivers, sometimes, will not like the ambiguous nature of a directional sign; they might be more likely to pick you up if they recognize the town written on your sign.

If you’ve been stranded on the side of the road for an unreasonably long time, it might have a lot to do with what you’ve written on your sign. (Always have an extra square of cardboard.) On my hh from Alaska to New York, it would have looked ridiculous to put “New York” when in Tok, Alaska. (I put “Whitehorse”—the next big town—instead.) If I wrote “New York,” drivers will either think I’m crazy or that there’s no point in picking me up since they aren’t going nearly that far. In cases like these, you’re better off writing down the name of the next big town.

What should I take with me?

Firstly, you must learn a little bit about where you’re going. If you’re headed to Fairbanks, Alaska in October, you must prepare for very cold weather. If you’re going to Seattle, you better have a poncho and a pack cover. I’d recommend checking out the average “low temperature” for the coldest place you’re going at that point in the year, subtract 10 degrees from it and then make sure you have the gear to survive that. (And presume there will be freezing rain at the same time.) If you prepare for the worst, you’ll be fine.

It is good to have a pack with you. If you’re hitching without a pack, drivers will think you’re some aimless, pathless drifter and be less likely to pick you up. (Several drivers have mentioned this to me.) And a pack, of course, will help you prepare for a variety of situations.

Think of hhing cross-country as just a really long camping trip. Obviously, where you’re going—whether it’s hot or cold, or wet or dry—will alter the contents of your pack, but, if I were heading up to Alaska in the summer, I’d carry the following:


Winter hat
Baseball cap
2 pairs of pants (jeans/khakis)
2 nice shirts (button up or polo)
2 white tees
Set of long johns or polypro
Rain suit
3 pairs of underwear
3 pairs of wool socks
Boots or sneakers


Water bottle
Backpacking stove
Propane canister
Sleeping bag
Tarp (at least 6x8 ft)
pocket knife
cell phone
industrial garbage bag (to cover your pack in the case of rain and if you don’t have a proper pack cover)


Razor and shaving cream
Toothbrush and toothpaste


Maps of places you’re going (absolutely essential)
Book for reading
Crayola crayons
Wallet with $200

Food (two or three day’s worth):

Granola, etc. etc.

What should I wear?

If you want to get an office job, you’re going to have to show up at the interview in a suit and tie. If you want to hitch rides, you may, similarly, need to acquiesce to the requirements of your driver. That means you gotta dress up a bit.

I make sure all my clothes are clean and reasonably unwrinkled. I tuck my shirt into my pants, and wear nice shirts like polos and button ups. Remember: you want to look innocent and harmless. Of course if you’re in a hippyish community where tattoos and piercings and smelly armpits are the norm, you’ll have no problem getting a ride, regardless of the cleanliness of your garb. But good luck getting a ride in the Midwest.

There are plenty of places to wash up along the way. Motels will sometimes let you pay just a couple bucks for a shower. You can also buy a shower at truck stops. If you’re clean and smell okay, not only are you more likely to get a ride, but the driver will be more likely to give you a longer one.

How can I better my chances of getting a ride?

Again, you want to look innocent and harmless. You can get a ride by sitting on your pack with your sign, but I think you’re better off standing since it’ll make you look less tired and lazy. Always think of your posture. And be sure to look pleasant. You don’t have to smile, but whatever you do, don’t look bored or angry or sad or frustrated. I’d say try to look somewhere in between neutral and happy.

Prepare to be frustrated. Hundreds of cars will pass you without so much as looking at you. But never show your frustration by kicking the ground or swearing or anything that might communicate anger to passing drivers. (In many cases, drivers who saw me turned around after going up the road a bit, only to come back and pick me up. If I had in some way expressed resentment over their initial snub, and they saw it, they never would have turned around.)

Is hitchhiking fun?

God no. Well, sometimes. Realize that, at times, you will have to sit or stand on the side of the road for 12 to 24 hours, sometimes in miserable weather. This is of course extremely boring and tedious and frustrating. Though, it’s arguable that it’s all worth it when someone finally pulls over.

How long should I expect to wait?

This is hugely dependent on two things:

(1) The town/state you’re hitching in and
(2) luck.

In many areas of the country, hitchhiking is still fairly commonplace. In Washington state, I rarely had to wait more than 20 minutes, but in places like Florida or Connecticut—where it’s not so common—I waited more than two hours for a ride. The most I ever waited was 12 hours in a town in the Yukon Territories; the least was less than a minute, both in British Columbia and Vermont. Ultimately, though, I think you can expect to wait 30 minutes to two hours.

How much money should I bring?

If you’re making your own food and sleeping in a tent, you don’t need much. I wouldn’t bring more than $200, plus a debit card. Even though no one has ever tried to rob me, I think it’s helpful to presume that someone will. This way, you won’t bring expensive items like iPhones and laptops and worry about them the whole time.

Do drivers expect anything in return?

No. If they need money, they’ll ask up front. (These are usually the rides I turn down, anyway.) Most drivers only wish to experience the joy of helping someone and the pleasure of having a captive listener. So be thankful—and be sure to play up how much they’re helping you—and be a great listener. I’ve extended many rides by being interested in their life stories (either genuinely or not).

Many times I’ve bought my drivers meals if they picked me up when I was standing in miserable weather or if they took me a far distance or if they went out of their way to drop me off somewhere. This is not required, but it always made me feel better about taking the ride.

Is hhing dangerous?

I think, in general, the level of fear and paranoia most Americans experience is not in accord whatsoever with the actual level of danger out there. In other words, our nation (and hhing) is safer than most perceive it to be. That said, there are still risks of course. When you get in someone else’s vehicle, your driver can easily, say, pull out a knife or gun and make you give him your money or do stuff you don’t want to do. (This never happened to me, but it’s worth considering.)

To decrease the chances of this, do the following:

1. hh in places where there are lots of passing cars (rest stop), which will make a would-be bad guy less likely to screw with you in open view.

2. Don’t hh at night. No one wants to pick someone up at night anyway.

3. Trust your gut instinct. Have a short conversation with your driver before getting in. Ask where he’s going. You only have a split second to determine if he’s a good guy or not. If he even, in the slightest way, gives you the willies, do not get in. (I’ve turned down maybe half a dozen rides because of this.) Just say “No thanks” or that “I’m actually going a lot farther than that” and they won’t be offended. If you have below-average “people reading” skills, don’t hitchhike at all.

Is it dangerous for women?

I don’t know if it’s appropriate to say it’s dangerous for women, but it’s certainly more dangerous for women than it is for men. It should be noted that most drivers are males, either for male or female hitchhikers.

I once hhed with my then-girlfriend for 25 days and we didn’t have any problems, but a couple passing drivers made lewd sexual gestures at her, so if she were alone, such and such a person could very well have been her driver.

While hhing solo is certainly possible, to ensure safety, it would be ideal to travel with a partner (male or female), and I’d strongly suggest carrying an easily accessible knife or can of mace. Also, it helps to call someone or text someone in front of the driver while on the drive, which will also deter crime.

When should I decline a ride?

You should obviously decline a ride if, as mentioned above, you're at all creeped out by your would-be driver, but there are other reasons to do so as well. And this is where the "art" of hitching rides comes in because sometimes—to get where you're going as quickly as possible—it's better to stay put rather than taking a ride.

Consider the following situation: You're on the outskirts of a hippyish town accepting of hitchhikers. The place where you're standing is safe and a large number of vehicles are heading in your direction. There's plenty of room for them to pull over. In other words, you're in the perfect spot to hitch a ride. If someone pulls over and offers to take you six miles when you're trying to go 300, you might be better off declining the ride and waiting for a longer one. You can get dropped off—at this place six miles up the road—and it can potentially be the worst spot to hitch rides out of. In other words, if you know you're going to get plenty of offers, wait for an ideal one, because willing drivers may be few and far between elsewhere.

Where should I sleep?

I carry a tent with me. In many towns—in Northwest U.S., Alaska, or Western Canada—I set up my tent in open view of the road, and felt safe doing it. There are still lots of places where sleeping on the side of the road in a semi or RV or tent is normal and safe. Of course, in other places, it’s weird, and it will give cops cause to harass you. In these cases, you can slip into the woods where you and your tent will be concealed. (Near thruways, there are always woods.)

If you’re stuck in the city, I’d splurge on a hostel or try to find a church or homeless shelter, or even call the cops before trying to sleep in really sketchy places.

What about hhing with groups of people?

It’s easy to hh as a solo male or solo female, or as a male and female couple, or as a female and female duo. But any other combo, I’d guess, would be far more difficult (like two or more males.) Between the people and gear, many drivers won’t have the room to support three hitchhikers. And there’s a certain risk with picking up two males since the driver knows he could be overpowered if the occasion called for it.

What are some other ways to get rides?

You can always ask for rides at truck stops and whatnot. If you’ve been stuck for a while, it might make it a lot easier to offer to pay for his coffee or meal.

Is hhing illegal?

Yes. In many places it is. Hitchhiking is not exactly—from what I know—wholly prohibited in any one state, but there are many places in those states where it is. For instance, hitching on thruways is illegal almost everywhere, except Oregon I think. (However, hitching on thruway entrance ramps is legal in most places.)

I’ve been approached by cops in states like Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and New York among others—and have been told by all these cops that hhing is illegal and that I can’t be doing this—BUT they almost always let me go and wish me well.

How should I deal with cops?

Kindness and honesty go a long way. Be sure to have an ID to give them so they can run your name through their system. When they realize that you’re clean, you’re usually good to go. If they tell you hhing is illegal, act surprised and be apologetic, and tell them you’ll never hh here again (which will probably be true). Most times they don’t mind too much since they know that, in an hour, you’ll likely be out of their district.

If they’re adamant about you not hhing there, tell them that you’ll find another way or that you’ll walk. (There are no anti-walking laws (except on thruways and some highways)). And once you’re a good ways away from them, you can probably pull out your sign and hitch a ride before the next cop finds you.

Should I hitch on a highway or thruway?

If you’re going for speed, definitely the thruway. You can probably cross the country in under three days if you’re lucky. If you're going for culture, use the highways and seldom-used country roads.

Is it possible to hitchhike in a city or town?

I wouldn’t even bother trying. Go to the very edge of town, where there’s less traffic, and the only traffic is outgoing traffic. If in a city, take a bus or train to the farthest suburb or country town where hitching rides and finding safe places to camp will be easier.

At what time of day should I stop hitching rides?

The last thing you want is to get a ride at dusk and then get dropped off somewhere at night. You want to set up your camping site well before the sun drops, so you can identify safe and concealed places. Obviously “nighttime” depends on the place and time of year, but, in general, just don’t put yourself in a situation in which you need to set up camp in a dark, unknown place.

Any last words of advice?

You’ll never learn exactly how to do it until you, yourself, go out and do it. So don’t worry if you’re not 100% prepared. After all, you can’t have an adventure without the unknown. At the very least, just carry enough clothes to stay warm and dry and you’ll more than likely be fine.


If you have advice of your own (or disagree with any of mine), please feel free to comment in the comment section. If you have other questions, please ask away, so I can update and expand this FAQ.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Film Review: “Default: The Student Loan Documentary”

God… Student debt pisses me off like nothing else. That millions of young students have to go into massive debt so that they may become competent and functional citizens is just astoundingly stupid and bizarre.

Default, a documentary that will air on PBS sometime in the near future, chronicles the stories of a half-dozen or so students and their experiences with debt. These people have debts of galactic proportions, yet none of them are dumb. Just as I was when I was 18, they were young and hopeful, but ignorant and deluded. They have been taken advantage of by corporate interests and left to dry by the government.

Who benefits from student loan debt? The private student loan companies of course.

Because we can’t declare bankruptcy on student loans, these companies have no reason to be cautious about giving out loans. That means: If you get sick, you still have to pay your loan. If you can’t get a job, you still have to pay your loan. In fact, it’s good for them if you can’t pay back your loan. If you go into forbearance (when you momentarily put a halt to your loan payments), interest causes your debt to keep growing and growing and growing. The more money you owe, the more money they get.

In the documentary, one woman owed $35,000 and paid back $26,000 of it. Yet, because she went into forbearance, she still owes $57,000. Another guy, who had a $46,000 loan, owes $122,000.

Couple thoughts generated by the film:

1. I think we need personal finance education in high schools. Of course this wouldn’t be as necessary if we had a better consumer protection agency—one that wouldn’t allow credit card companies and for-profit colleges to prey on unknowing young people—but until then I think a lot can be gained from a high school personal finance education. Just as “health class” is required in many high schools—covering topics like STDs, contraception, and the consequences of drugs—students should also learn what interest is, how much college will really cost them, and about sobering job placement statistics. (I didn’t learn any of this when I was a high school senior—how could I if no one taught me?)

2. The film supports a movement to forgive all student loans ($700 billion), which I think is actually $900 billion now. I don’t know how I feel about this. Of course it’s unlikely that they can get Congress to pass such a measure, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. But is it the right thing to do? A lot of students have been taken advantage of and mislead, but should all students—those with reasonable debts and those who are in debt largely because of profligate decision-making—be relieved of their debts too? While it would be great if all debts vanished, might such actions encourage even more fiscal irresponsibility, knowing that the government will bail you out whenever you need it?

3. I was able to pay back my $32,000 loan so quickly partly because my mother put my whole high-interest private loan (something like $18,000 of my debt) on her credit card. (She had perfect credit so there’d be no interest accumulation.) I simply paid her back and didn’t have to deal with increases due to interest. If other people had this option, they could pay off their debts much more quickly. How ‘bout if interest is made to fluctuate based on how quickly the debtor is paying off his debt? As an incentive to pay it off quickly, the interest could, say, drop from 6% to 1% if you’re doubling your payments. If you’re paying it off slowly, perhaps it should stay at its normal level to encourage you to speed up.


Anyway, Default is a timely documentary, and one that should be shown to all high school students before they make the five-digit decisions that may wildly alter the course of their lives.

Check out their website here for info: defaultmovie.com I recommend joining their Facebook page; every day they put up stories related to school and student debt.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The bus

Last week, with friend and photographer Josh Spice, I hiked to Bus 142 on the Stampede Trail outside Healy, Alaska. This is the site of Chris McCandless's death.

Josh took over 900 photos and I'm dying to write up a travel narrative and post his pictures, but I've decided to pitch the article idea to an outdoors magazine. Here are a couple shots of the bus.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Fox and porcupine

On a drive up the Dalton Highway, just above tree line, near Chandalar Shelf, I came across five very curious and unafraid fox pups who posed for me for nearly five minutes.

At the Coldfoot airstrip, I came across this porcupine which appears to be missing half of his quills on his back, perhaps due to a skirmish with a predator.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Radio Interview

I did an interview with NPR Buffalo a week ago, which you can read about and listen to here.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

My new home

I arrived in Fairbanks earlier this week. My old park ranger friend, Josh--not to be confused with my other good friend named Josh--and I went out on a 38 mile hike to and from Bus 142 on the Stampede Trail in which Chris McCandless lived and died. (I'll do a post on that another day.)

The following day I got a plane ride up to Coldfoot in the company's 10-seat Navajo. Here are a couple views from the clouds.

It's been an exceptionally hot spring/summer season so far, so there are plenty of wild fires, which caused, as you'll see, the following pictures to be a little smoky.

Yukon River.

Here's the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk River--a 10-minute walk from where I live in Coldfoot.

I am Coldfoot Camp's "writer in residence." I'll devote almost all of my time to literary pursuits, but, for room and board, I've agreed to work at the camp one day a week (without pay). What that work will be is uncertain as of this moment, but I'm willing to do anything, as I'm more than happy with our agreement.

My new home has electricty, two windows, two beds, and a small desk for writing. Currently there's no internet connection, but I can get that at the camp's central headquarters. There's also no need for a stove or fridge since there's a kitchen staff that makes breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets for the truckers, tourists, and Coldfoot staff, of which I'm considered one.

Inside of cabin when I arrived.

As you can see, there are two random sticks hanging from the ceiling, each of which had nails poking out at about retina-level, which I bumped into 4 or 5 times despite being deathly aware of.

Heap of dead mosquito carcasses in my windowsill.

Blinds hung from inventively-bent wire hanger.

Random union button.

I removed the eye-gouging posts, moved the beds around, and tidied up. The next few shots are an almost 360-degree view of the cabin.

Here's the view from my rear window: spruce, birch trees, and what looks like a vacant husky house.

Needless to say, I am very happy with my new home. Certainly an upgrade from the van.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Denali National Park

I went on a mini backcountry adventure this past weekend with my friend Josh Spice--a Fairbanks resident. Since we were close by, we took a short scenic detour through Denali National Park.

Here's a cow moose and her calf by the road. There were lots of moose by the road, probably because it's safer for mamas' younglings since wolves and bears are less likely to attack in the presence of humans.

Here's a porcupine. Sorry for the fuzzy pictures. It was around midnight and the light was really low.

Snowshoe Hare.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Arrival in Alaska

I got off the plane, walked outside, and smelled the musty fragrance of an unchecked forest fire off yonder. It was 12:15 a.m. yet still partially light outside, like the hour just before the sun rises or sets. And then--when a mosquito bit my bicep--I knew I was home.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Leaving Acorn Abbey

This true people took the stranger
And warm hearted housed the ranger
They received their roving guest
And have fed him with the best.

-doggerel, though fitting doggerel, that Thoreau wrote upon leaving the Emerson household, where he lived and worked as their handyman/ groundskeeper.