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  • Ken Ilgunas

Rule of Thumb #1: Prepare for anything. Failure especially.

[In the summer of 2007 at the age of 23, I hitchhiked 5,500 miles from Alaska to New York. To preserve and share these memories, I’ve decided to post a weekly entry about the journey.]

Day 1: May 15, 2007. Coldfoot, AK to Coldfoot, AK (0 miles)

I would rather that my spark should burn out

in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom

of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.

The function of man is to live, not to exist.

I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.

I shall use my time. — Jack London credo

Hitchhiking is a lot like asking a girl out. It’s exciting, nerve-racking, and you’re sure there’s absolutely no chance for success. And as each and every car zips past you, you’re left with the spurned lover’s sting of rejection.

But sometimes, you get lucky.

This is actually a terrible analogy because—even at the age of twenty-three—I still had yet to ask a girl out. Nor had I done a drug, broken a law, or—for the most part—diverted from the path prescribed for me by social and parental expectation.

I was thence cursed with a burning restlessness that—I thought—could only be purged by embarking on a highly dangerous and certain-to-fail adventure.

Faulty logic, maybe. And I suppose my romantic plunge into the unknown was also due in part to the unhealthy amount of travel and adventure books I had been reading over the winter.

But one thing I was sure of: seeking a secure future no longer interested me. It never did. I thought that while security may prolong life, it dulls it too. Rather, I dreamt of mingling with ex-felons, knife-fighting with grizzlies, and falling in love on the open road.

I had been living in Coldfoot, Alaska for exactly a year. I did everything there from brushing toilet bowls at the motel to flipping burgers at the truck stop to guiding rafting tours down the Koyukuk River.

Having arrived at Coldfoot the day after I graduated from college, my experiences in the world were few. To fix that, I made it my goal to hitchhike 5,000 miles from Coldfoot, Alaska to my boyhood home in Buffalo, New York.

I said my goodbyes to friends, strapped on my backpack, and on a mild, blue-skied May afternoon, I walked down the Dalton Highway—nervous, scared, but brimming (and almost shaking) with excitement.

I gazed upon the mountains that were percolating water from melting winter snows into turgid streams and rivers. An inquisitive moose watched me from a camouflaging copse of green spruce trees as I marched past, confidently shouldering the heavy load on my back that was bursting with clothes, food, and camping gear that I hoped would sustain me for the next several weeks.

I heard a truck grumbling from the north. Perhaps my first ride? I stopped, grinned, and stuck out my thumb. Nothing. He didn’t even slow down. After five miles, I ceased walking and laid my pack on a patch of grass. I’d wait for the rides to come to me, I thought.

But after twelve hours and only seventeen southbound trucks (at a disillusioning pace of one truck every 42 minutes), I slung my pack on again and walked the five miles back to camp and jeering coworkers.

How will I get to New York if I can’t even get out of Coldfoot?

Dirk, a trucker and my first ride the following morning, would help me figure that out.


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