“I’d Kill My Daughter If She Did That”: Hitchhiking in Alaska

The wide acceptance and casual attitude towards hitchhiking in Alaska is a metaphor for all the ways in which it is my favorite place I’ve ever been to in my life. 

First of all, it’s legal. Secondly, a few people told me that a driver can be ticketed if they don’t stop to help someone requiring assistance, and that if you wave down a train, they have to stop even if there’s no platform (online search results to confirm this are few and mixed; some say it’s only after certain dates in the winter). Everything is so far apart and the country is so gnarly, that a person stranded or lost in the wilderness could be in real danger. So locals understand, and they pay it forward. Law or not, it’s unwritten code to help your neighbor and there’s a real sense of community. At the same time, they also let you be. You say you’re going on a climb alone and the response is just, “have fun!” without batting an eye. When I tell people in the lower 48 that I’m doing anything at all alone, I hear about it (does that only happen to women or is it everyone?). It’s understood that everyone’s doing their own thing and taking on their own risk.

I also found that hitchhiking isn’t just tolerated, it’s encouraged. As a traveler, people look at you weird if you suggest renting a car or taking a train or some other kind of transportation. Within each city you can walk anywhere, and between cities drivers are more than willing to pick you up (in the more populated areas, at least; a lot of Alaska is very remote and difficult to access). Working in a hostel, anytime a guest wants to get to another town, you tell them where we keep the cardboard and markers. In fact the first second I walked into Base Camp, there was a guy writing out “DENALI”. He hit the streets in the next 5 minutes and was off; it was so fun a few weeks later when he checked back in (“it’s that guy!”) and regaled us with everything that had happened during his adventures. 

Part of the exchange was that volunteers and staff would have enough time off for their own adventures, too. For instance, Corey (who bought a $400 car off Craigslist for longer trips) and Nessa went up to McCarthy to crampon their way up the ice and skinny-dip in a glacial Blue Pool. You’re supposed to go with a tour guide, but they went it alone and didn’t bring any equipment. The guy at the hotel told them they were crazy, but they successfully found the pool. That’s good enough for me, I don’t think I need to recreate that one myself. I went a different direction - my favorite week was when a guest told me she wanted to try hitching, so the two of us took off for Seward. It took three different drivers who all had totally different stories to share with us. One was on his way to save his sinking boat that was apparently taking on water in Whittier. One was going gillnetting for salmon; he explained that each family gets an allotment of salmon fishing they’re allowed to do to live off of (for eating, but I don’t think for selling), and anything past that is harmful to the salmon populations. He was an economics professor. The next guy was definitely some kind of outlaw criminal hiding from the lower 48; he said he lives in a cottage out in the woods and only comes out to hunt bears at night around 2AM when no-one will catch him (that’s called poaching, dude). Surprisingly this guy’s demeanor wasn’t as creepy as it sounds, but more and more questionable information started to come out. 

 Seward-Bound

Seward-Bound

Once we were in Seward we parted ways so that I could go hike and camp Lost Lake and she could go on a kayaking excursion. Lost Lake is a 14 mile trail that deserves it’s own blog post. My friend’s kayaking adventure sounded like a blast, too - she ended up meeting this family that invited her to stay with them on the opposite bank where they partied and fed her salmon. 

 Lost Lake

Lost Lake

 Bucket list

Bucket list

 Seward locals Dave & Missy

Seward locals Dave & Missy

The next day we got back together and some locals dropped us off at a free, secluded riverside camping spot down the road from Exit Glacier. The water is actually the runoff as the glacier melts, and at night we could hear masses of ice breaking off into the water. In the morning we coincidentally got a ride to the glacier from a group of people from my hometown in Texas (strangely, this wasn’t the first time - back at the hostel one guest I met was from nearby Orange, TX, and had just gone looking for the Chris McCandless bus. He reported that the stories about how treacherous the river is are true, and that he almost died. What saved him was when he noticed a hiker on the opposite bank, and they devised a pulley system with ropes to get each other and their packs across). 

 Exit Glacier

Exit Glacier

 Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home

On the way back from Seward it took a lot longer to flag someone, but finally one guy stopped and blessed us - he took us the entire way. He kept saying how he loves picking up hitchhikers because he loves to show off “My version of Alaska”. He stopped off at roadside attractions along the way, including Portage Glacier, a spigot on the side of a mountain where everyone pulls their cars over to fill up their jugs with natural glacier water melting down through the topography (when the Base Camp owner Olé would return from trips, he’d always bring a couple jugs to keep in-house; they say it’s purer than tap), and his favorite bakery where he bought us both slices of pie. I learned a lot from him; when he drove us by Turnagain Arm he explained about the massive tidal wave that draws surfers from all over the world. He expanded my mind politically in that he offered an alternative way of thinking about gun control, since I had never considered how necessary they might be for survival in a place like Alaska, which is still the wild west. He took us to the residential hills where rich people have plane garages instead of car garages, and just fly right off their driveway. Because of the difficulty in reaching some of those remote areas, pilots are in high demand.

 Near Portage Glacier

Near Portage Glacier

The worldview of Alaskans resonated with me. I treasured the freedom, camaraderie, and the try-everything, you-do-you attitudes. I bowed at the majesty of the landscapes, especially when shrouded in that misty haze usually associated with the Pacific Northwest. In those brief months, "My Alaska" gave me autonomy.



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