- Ken Ilgunas
Rule of thumb #2
Day 2: May 16, 2007. Coldfoot, AK to Delta Junction, AK (349 miles)
I didn't like truckers.
They were fat, obscene with waitresses, and watched Fox News at all hours. Too lazy to pull over, they’d reputedly urinate into pop bottles at the wheel and then hurl the golden grenades of Dr. Pepper and Mug Root Beer into an otherwise unsullied arctic landscape.
As a cook at the truck stop, I’d purposely hasten the onset of heart disease by slathering an extra coating of mayonnaise on greasy cheeseburgers and overloading their dinner plates with hillocks of golden-brown tater-tots.
The town of Coldfoot got its name from the gold-rush miners who got “cold feet” and scurried back home to wife and child in favor of toughing it out in mosquito-laden summers and negative-sixty degree winters.
But some stayed. In the early 1900’s, Coldfoot—in its prime—boasted half a dozen saloons, a gambling hall, two roadhouses, a post office and even a brothel.
The miners, these days, are gone, but Coldfoot has staged a comeback servicing truckers who are hauling equipment up to Prudhoe Bay where oil is pumped down 800 miles of pipeline to Valdez.
Just several years ago, truckers at Coldfoot—rumor has it—would coax waitresses back to their trucks for more generous tips. The saying goes that the waitresses would “service them in the restaurant, then in the cab.”
But the truth was, I had hardly even spoken to a trucker and I was lumping the lumpy into one very unfair and unbecoming stereotype.
Before I go any further, I should mention that this was my first attempt at hitchhiking. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I had ever even seen a hitchhiker. I wondered: do people still hitchhike? Is there any conceivable way that I could thumb my way home?
Of course I was familiar with the hitchhiking lore of the 1960’s and 70’s, supposedly when over-sized, multi-colored vans picked up hitchhikers at whim, offering them coke lines and invitations into writhing, hairy-bodied backseat orgies.
I wasn’t so sure if that was how things actually went down, but I was pretty sure that hitchhiking wouldn’t be so easy these days. Far worse, I suspected.
New anti-hitchhiking laws, a nationwide deluge of paranoia, and a collective distrust would make hitching rides, I presumed, much harder.
When I started my hitchhike, the movie The Hitcher just came out on DVD—a ludicrous remake of an absurd, but slightly better, horror flick from the 80’s, starring Rutger Hauer. Though I haven’t seen either film, I can safely presume that some hitchhiking psychopath relentlessly interrupts ludicrously good-looking teens having sex by impaling them in the skull with some sharp, metal object. Because that’s, I guess, what people believe hitchhikers do. And the paranoia created by movies like these fosters a general distrust towards strangers and trepidation towards hitchhikers that would—at times—keep me on the side of the road for longer than I pleased.
But I had one thing going for me. Looking more like an innocuous country boy who needed a ride back to the family farm, drivers, I thought, would feel more inclined to pick me up rather than the bearded, camo-wearing eccentric that sometimes frequents curbsides outside of Fairbanks.
To better my chances at landing rides, I:
1. Shaved off my scraggily beard 2. Wore polos and button-up shirts 3. Wrote on my cardboard signs with crayola crayons 4. And finally, hid my twelve-inch hunting knife in the side pouch of my backpack
Dirk was a trucker in his mid-thirties. His ensemble of oil-stained jeans, an unbuttoned plaid shirt and a dirty ball-cap seemed in sync with his confident demeanor and convict’s-goatee. As we walked to his truck I kept in stride with his caffeinated gait while he explained that he needed someone to talk to so he could make it all the way home to Delta Junction (almost a 350-mile ride) without falling asleep. I met him that morning at the trucker’s cafe.
He talked a mile a minute, detailing everything from his family history to his criminal past. (Dirk was wanted in two states and, according to him, wrongly suspected of murder in one.)
As he came to trust me, he began imparting highly personal stories, which included a rich history of relationships with strippers and a period of his life when he was a self-admitted man-whore. Dirk used to warn women: “If you’re gettin’ in my truck, you’re gonna fuck.” In addition, and in exquisite detail, he described the faults and merits of his wife’s pubic hair.
His stories, though, at times, would take a serious turn. He told me about how his father molested his sister and how Dirk threatened to kill him if he ever caught him alone with his children.
He was fully, genuinely, in love with his wife Julia and their two kids. Mostly, he whined about his enormous debt and I was amused when he’d mention the Tommy Gun that just came in the mail, costing him nearly $1,300.
“You know what I’m thinking about?” he’d ask, filling in a break of conversation. “Rat-at-at-at-at-at-at!” he sputtered while miming a 1930’s gangster.
“When we get home, we can test it out.”
Dirk derided the theory of evolution and loved to talk politics, often attempting to draw me into disclosing my beliefs. But prudence nudged me to share little, especially none of my feelings on the availability of automatic weapons or the improvidence of buying a machinegun when in debt. I courteously deflected his questions and upon reaching his home, we gleefully fired a few rounds at the gravel pit.
His wife Julia was beautiful with achingly long legs and a model’s jaw line. They were affectionate and according to Dirk’s descriptive monologue, had a vibrant sex life. The kids, Kevin and Kristen, were angels: polite to me, obedient to their parents. I played tag with them at the gravel pit and Dirk and Julia grew familiar enough with me to invite me over for dinner and to spend the night.
The hitchhiker is not just a miser of rides. He’s a therapist, a companion, and sometimes, a friend. Dirk and I, for just a day, were friends.