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  • Ken Ilgunas

Rule of thumb #4

... in the mission to traffic "Joey" out of town

Day 4: May 18, Tok, Alaska to Teslin, Yukon Territories (498 miles)

My goals were straightforward. They were:

I. Go home to New York II. If possible, see my girlfriend Natalia in Oregon III. Travel by any means necessary; hitchhiking preferably IV. Never, ever, let my mother find out

I chose Josh, my good friend in Coldfoot, Alaska, to be my “base camp.” I told him that if I don’t call every seven days, then he should go ahead and alert the authorities. And if there is no avoiding it any longer, call my mother.

I wouldn’t wish such a scenario on my worst enemy. I might rather be abducted by a couple of horny hillbillies in Appalachia or be a play-toy in a grizzly den than have to call my mom with bad news.

My mom, an overly nervous woman to begin with, would not—to say the least—respond well to news about her son missing in the land of grizzlies and sasquatch.

While I didn’t think it would ever come to that, at some point in my ride with Bobbie, however, I worried that Josh was going to have to make that call.

In Tok, the previous evening, I struggled to get a ride. I stopped at the town’s visitor center to ask where I could find a good spot to stand, but the lady warned me that Tok was a difficult town to hitchhike out of because it was so close to the Canadian border. She recommended I take a bus to Whitehorse in the Yukon, but that cost $125 and I didn’t want to resort to other modes of travel quite yet.

There wasn’t much traffic leaving Tok and the few drivers heading east didn’t bother to give a passing glance to my cardboard sign to “Canada.”

The weather was still pleasant but the temperature was descending with the sun, which—in a month’s time—would still be hovering above the horizon through almost all hours of the night.

As I sat on my pack with my sign held on my knee, a transient black lab offered me companionship. His presence may have deterred the few trucks that passed from stopping, but I didn’t have the heart to shoe him away.

I gave up for the night and made myself a Mountain House Meal (freeze-dried food you just add boiling water to), set up my tent, and slept soundly on the side of the road. I woke early, around 7 am, cooked oatmeal with craisins and brown sugar with my backpacking stove, and made an even bigger sign, reading “Canada” in huge red letters.

The hours go by and I grow concerned. I figure no one wants to take a hitchhiker across the border, and the border itself is a two-day walk—an excursion I’m unwilling to undertake. Still, I’m comfortable, the weather is beautiful, and a scattering of birds sing me a panorama of song as I gaze at a frozen wave of white peaks to the south.

It’s approaching noon and I begin to fret about being stuck in Tok when a black SUV pulls over and someone yells out, “Hey Ken!”

What the hell?

Much to my disbelief, it’s a group of former coworkers from Fairbanks heading through Canada to Skagway, Alaska. Still a bit shocked—almost to the point where I struggle to keep my hands steady—I hop in, relay my few hitchhiking stories, and slug a couple Kokanee beers en route to Whitehorse, Canada—a quaint sub-arctic metropolis in the Yukon Territories, 400 miles from Tok.

I’m overwhelmed and can’t thank them enough. Patrick, the driver, buys me a coffee and bagel at Tim Hortons and forces me to take $40 in Canadian money. They drop me off on the highway, we hug, snap pictures, and go our own ways.

Whenever someone pulls over for the hitchhiker, especially after a long wait, the elation is almost difficult to bear. I can only compare the feeling to moments of unrestrained ecstasy experienced as a child: seeing a cluster of presents on Christmas morning or hearing that your elementary school is going to have a snow-day over the radio.

But upon being dropped off, the anxiety is equally as potent. The hitchhiker wonders how long he’ll have to wait, where he’ll sleep, and worst of all: whether he’ll ever get a ride.

It’s around 8 pm but there’s still plenty of daylight so I make my sign for the next sizable town, which is Watson Lake—just north of the British Columbia border. I stand out there for an hour, sit down to look at my maps, and was delighted when Bobbie pulled over in her sedan.

Bobbie was a native girl, heavyset, pushing at least 250 pounds. She was in her late twenties, very cheery, and was hoping to pick up a hitchhiker to keep her company. She asked me to help her move some party supplies out of the back seat into the trunk (she was hosting a baby shower in a town called Teslin). When I motioned to move the large bottle of liquor and various six-packs of wine-coolers, she exclaimed, “No, no. Keep those up front for me.” Luckily—for my sake—she gave me the keys and I was to take her the 100 miles or so to Teslin.

She pounded one wine cooler after another, and refused to shut the windows because it makes her feel claustrophobic.

“I’m a Yukon girl,” she’d giggle, while I shivered feverishly in my hoodie.

As we sped down the highway she interrupted, “No. Wait, wait, wait. Turn here at this campground. I got some friends I want to meet here.”

This is it, I thought. This was her plan all along. This is when she and her cronies throw me out of the car, steal my gear, rip off my clothes, and jam some non-cylindrical object into me while laughing and giving each other high-fives.

I knew that hitchhiking wasn’t exactly safe. Yet I thought if I kept my wits, used common sense, and at the very worst, was quick to retrieve my hunting knife, then I just might escape this adventure alive.

I was willingly putting myself in hazardous situations, probably for the same reason people go sky-diving, or mountain climbing. There’s a thrill to hitchhiking. There’s a lot of boredom, a lot of monotony, but there are, without question, thrills.

Bobbie said hello to a couple friends at the campground—without event—and we got into the town of Teslin around midnight. She said I could stay at her friend Marie’s place and though I felt uncomfortable with the offer, a warm bed sounded enticing.

Teslin is small community primarily made up of natives, a few whites, and an unverified number of sasquatch. Infamous in the Yukon for its high number of Bigfoot sightings, nine Teslin residents in 2005, according to CBC News, saw a large, hairy, human-like figure walk past a window. This has not been the first sighting, and I doubt, the last.

When we got there drunks strutted across the street yelling obscenities. I immediately felt uneasy. By the time we got to her friend Marie’s, Bobbie was thoroughly soused and urged me, ceaselessly, to take a shot of whiskey, all of which I politely declined.

Marie—a well kept, attractive middle-aged woman—looked at me warily, probably wondering if I’d slice her throat open in the middle of the night. I didn’t take offense, though. I probably wouldn’t want me in my house either.

Bobbie had other friends in town so I chauffeured her to Alex’s. She slugged a few more beers and every so often she brushed her hand against my thigh.

We couldn’t tell whether Alex was home or not because of the freakishly-large dog in front aptly named Zeus who looked like one of the ghastly Zuul dogs in Ghostbusters.

Bobbie prodded me to go knock and I responded, sternly, “Bobbie—I don’t care if I sound scared or girly right now, but I’m not going anywhere near that dog.”

We then visited Joey—a middle-aged native with sleepy eyes—who, to make things so much more complicated and scary, was under house-arrest. The police drove by every few minutes to make sure he was still home, while I nervously sat on his couch watching a TV show called “Kenny vs. Spenny.”

I was in a difficult situation. I wanted to get the hell away from Bobbie, Joey, Marie, Zeus and Teslin altogether. I wanted to be at home in my waterbed, safe and sound.

Hoping to get away, I told Bobby that I’d be happy to sleep in my tent but she fervently insisted that I’d have my own room.

As the night dragged on, Joey and Bobbie hatched a plan to get Joey out of town. If Joey slipped around the woods undetected by the police, we could pick him up in Bobbie’s car and party it up at Watson Lake where Joey would have access to his beloved alcohol.

I had no part in the creation of these plans, and while I tensely listened, they designated me as the getaway driver because we had a bottle of liquor in the back and sober people were scarce.

Bobbie wanted to go see another friend before we trafficked Joey out of town so before dropping her off I said, “This has been wonderful and I really appreciate the ride, but I really should go my own way at this point.” Finally she gave in. It was dark and I was cold. I walked along the highway and found a patch of grass to set up my tent for the night.

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