Hitchhiking the Last Frontier

By Mo Hafeez

Hitchhiking used to be the norm means of travel and transportation less than fifty years ago, but in the decades since it has become a feature of our society which is slowly declining.

The Beat Generation’s mindset of trust, faith and anti-consumerism, embodied in key figures such as Jack Kerouac and Jim Morrison, has since been replaced by paranoia, fear, and individualism. Films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hitcher have provided the fuel for this, whilst the media and governments have run caution campaigns against hitchhiking.

This is not to say that such a mindset is wrong or unfounded, given that there have been various high-profile cases of hitchhiking gone wrong, most notably perhaps the ‘Highway of Tears’ in Canada, where between nineteen and forty murders/disappearances have occurred, with only one conviction.

This being said, I decided to solo-travel to Alaska over the past summer with the intention of hitchhiking my way around as I explored the state. Compared to most other states, I had read that hitchhiking was relatively common in the Last Frontier. I put so much faith in Alaska that I booked no bus or train journeys, no ticketed attractions, and no hostels (except to bookend my trip) for my three week stay.

After my first few rides I began to feel comfortable with the experience. Below are two of my most memorable lifts.

 

Sparky

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After walking for over 5 miles across the coastal town of Seward and along the Seward Highway under the (unexpectedly) hot Alaskan sun, I ran out of water.  I was beginning to lose hope whilst hitchhiking concurrently began to lose its appeal. I had another three miles of lugging my backpack and supplies before I could reach my hostel, so I decided to try my luck by stopping by a storage lot.

I entered what seemed to be a workshop, and asked the slightly tipsy occupant whether I could grab a lift back to my hostel. He didn’t seem too friendly and told me I would “have to ask Sparky.” Sparky, bearded and bare-chested, sat over his computer, muttering to himself. He didn’t give me a direct answer to my request, but did say he was having trouble connecting his wireless printer. I said I could give it a look if he wanted, to which he laughingly responded “I’ll sure as hell give you a lift if you manage that!”.

I took a few minutes trying to connect the printer whilst keeping my eye on the absolutely humongous Malamute husky in the corner of the room. After I realised I had no idea what I was doing, I opted to try and connect the printer via a cable instead, which did indeed work. We bonded over the experience, and he tossed me a beer, and then offered to smoke weed with me. There ensued a conversation about the history of Seward, his partner who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and everything in between.

After hopping in his truck still high (which could have been a poor decision, but hindsight is twenty-twenty), he drove me back to my hostel and rode off back into the town after giving me his email address.

 

Peter and Jane

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I met Peter and Jane after running across downtown Anchorage for a shuttle bus service that would take me to Flattop Mountain. During the ride, I discussed the nature of my trip with the other passengers, and Peter offered me a potential 237 mile ride to Denali National Park the next day should my hitchhiking efforts fail.

After 3 hours of no rides in the early morning, I took up Peter’s offer – in my mind I questioned if I would have offered a ride to a hitchhiker that I barely knew at all, but I was extremely grateful that the Colorado couple did. The five-hour drive involved discussions of religion, family life, poetry (after Jane saw my copy of Gary Snyder’s Cold Mountain Poems), and music.

By the end of the ride I was quite sad to see them go – they were kind enough to even offer me a lift back, but our schedules unfortunately did not align. They left me with a Denali National Park postcard as a present, and drove on into the park to reach a campground.

 

These were just two of my rides during my time in Alaska – whilst not all of my lifts were quite as friendly and welcoming (including the lifts that I had to turn down after discovering the drivers were overwhelmingly drunk), it is safe to say that hitchhiking may be the most memorable part of the trip. I met a whole host of other characters that I could write about, from Sean, an actor starring in the upcoming reboot of Twin Peaks,  to Steven, who let me sleep in his minivan during a very rainy night and picked me up after four hours of failed hitchhiking on my exit from the national park the next day.

The hitchhiking revival is definitely a real phenomenon. It revealed to me parts of my character which were stronger than I realised, and I also saw some of my flaws come through. I encourage readers to give it a try, to take risks, to travel solo: to put themselves in life’s stream and just let go.

 

Photographs: Mo Hafeez

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