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  • Ken Ilgunas

Rule of thumb #3: Avoid drivers who “just got out” [of prison]

Day 3: May 17, 2007. Delta Junction, AK to Tok, AK (111 miles)

I said goodbye to Dirk and his family, snapped a picture of them, and held out my cardboard sign for the town of Tok drawn in big purple bubble letters. As I sat on the side of the highway, a local tossed me a cinnamon bun that he just bought from a nearby farmer’s market, which I gratefully accepted.

A couple of cars pulled up and offered to take me a few miles up the road. I declined, hoping to snag a longer ride, but settled when James offered to take me to the town of Dot Lake, fifty miles closer to the Canadian border.

James was a hunter and told me about all of his hunting exploits and claimed, in Texas twang, “You can’t never beat a female in gun shootin.’ You give a girl a gun the first time and odds are they’ll shoot better than most any guy.”

Dot Lake—a town largely comprised of natives—has a population that doesn’t exceed the double digits. I sat with my sign to Tok by a nearby school and some girls, in their upper teens, kept walking by, greeting me each time with a “hi there” and giggles.

I smiled and waived back.

Despite the pattern of middle-aged men I had had for drivers so far, I secretly harbored fantasies of having a sub-arctic tryst with some nubile young driver in a tight tank top and jeans who’d love me one night and leave me the next.

The adventurer—by nature—relinquishes the direction of his life to the discretion of “fate.” No longer entirely at the wheel, someone or something else is driving. And suddenly, strangely, paradoxically, the loss of control becomes empowering. No longer at the mercy of the stifling order of conventional life, order, inhibition and restraint are accordingly flung into the air, off like clothes in a moment of passion.

Though Wayne—a heavyset, middle-aged native—wasn’t the dark-haired beauty I dreamt of, I was still excited when he pulled over for me. As I got in his rust-speckled pickup, though, I detected something off-putting in his wide smile and slurred pronunciations. I buckled up, swallowed my fears, and hoped he was merely dazed by a mild hallucinogen.

He was heading east to Tok to get his tires changed on the truck that he was giving to his son as a graduation present. A strange gift, I thought, because Wayne just received a royal, meth-induced ass-whoopin’ from his son.

“He beat the living shit out of me.”

Wayne hadn’t been much of a father figure. He casually mentioned that he “just got out” of prison and that he occasionally dabbles with meth. He sipped from a can of Sierra Mist and I wondered what squares on the periodic table he may have sprinkled in.

As we headed down the Alcan Highway lined on each side of the road with thick spruce forest, Wayne divulged stories of his eighteen-month stint in a federal penitentiary for killing a bald eagle. When I questioned him about what seemed like an awfully rigid sentence for killing a bird that is now off the endangered species list, he clarified that the length of his sentence was exacerbated because of a rich history of DWI’s, thereby confirming the worst of my fears.

First a convict. Then a hunter. Now I was riding with a convict/hunter with a penchant for nose-candy and swerving over yellow lines.

We were going about 60 mph and I estimated that if I open the door, exit the truck, land on my shoulder, tuck, and then roll, I might have a better chance of surviving the fall than I did in the truck with Wayne.

I took my chances, though, and remained in the truck. He told me all about the prison gangs and the drug epidemics plaguing various Alaskan villages. He said meth was a good drug, far different than cocaine, which “makes you go insane.” When I brought up his son’s recent act of meth-induced insanity, Wayne changed the subject.

He dropped me off in Tok, I walked to the edge of town, made a sign for Canada with a drawing of a big red maple leaf, and awaited my next ride.


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