The Crack of Dawn
The Crack of Dawn
Back there in the summer of 1977 I was hitchhiking to Alaska. I had made it as far as Fort St. John, British Columbia, 600 miles north of Vancouver. I was picked up in a rust-colored Datsun pickup truck by a fellow named Tom. He had a bushy red beard and a goofy smile. “How far ya goin’?” he asked. “Alaska,” I said. “Me, too,” said Tom, “I’ll take you all the way,” which was still over 2,000 miles. Tom reached under his seat and came out with a stuffed, gallon-sized zip-lock bag of gorgeous, stinky, high-quality, skunk weed. He said, “We have to smoke all of this before crossing the border into Alaska. Are you up to it?” I grinned, “I’ll give it my best shot.”
Tom was great. We smoked weed and sang rock songs. He was going to work on the pipeline for the third time. Two days later we arrived in Whitehorse, Yukon. We saw the cabins of Jack London and Robert W. Service on Lake LaBarge, where Sam Magee was cremated. This is where the Al-Can Highway began – 2,000 miles of dirt road built by black soldiers during WWII. There was a gas station every 300 miles, just as the gas gauge was touching E. We crossed the border into Alaska at Beaver Creek, Yukon. It’s 150 miles to the first human settlement called Tok Junction. This is where the road splits: north goes to Fairbanks, south to Anchorage. Mt. McKinley (now Denali), the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet, loomed in the distance. Tom dropped me off, then headed off to Fairbanks.
Tok (pronounced “toke”) Junction wasn’t a town, it was a crossroad. On one corner was a single-wide trailer marked, Alaska Visitor Center/Public Library; across the street was a log cabin housing Farren’s Groceries; there was a gas station, then the entire rest of Tok Junction was a trailer park presently filled to capacity with three or four hundred Airstream trailers. Hourly, cars hauling Airstream trailers kept arriving. Apparently, the Airstream Club chooses a location every summer, then that’s where they all go. This year it was Tok Junction, Alaska.
It was June 23, two days past the Summer Solstice. The sun traveled in an oval around the sky for 23 hours, fell behind the horizon and it got gray for an hour, then sunrise; a new day. It was 85-degrees, extremely humid, and there were more mosquitoes than I have ever seen in my life, before or since. The mosquitoes were three inches long, big, dopy and slow, and there were a zillion of them. We humans, and bears and moose and elks, were all living in their world. You literally had to duck and parry your way through the cloud of buzzing bugs that wanted to eat you, if you allow them to land on you, so you had to keep moving. You could grab them right out of the air and squash them. They were in such abundance that they were known to drive bears and moose crazy.
I went into Farren’s Grocery Store and purchased a potato, an onion, a half-pound of bison meat, and a variety of candy bars. Being prepared for any eventuality, I had in my pack an army surplus mosquito head-net. I was wearing a green army jacket, a Detroit Tigers cap covered in netting, jeans and boots, and gloves, even though it was 85 degrees. I was sweating like a motherfucker. And I began to have second thoughts about why the fuck I was even there.
As I stood outside the store I saw a fellow get dropped off at the crossroads about one hundred yards away. He was a 35-year-old white guy in regular pants and a short-sleeved shirt. As I smoked a cigarette – I actually smoked Pall Mall filterless cigarettes at that time – I put on my head net, stowed my meat, potato, onion and candy bars, I watched as this fellow begin to hop and dance in a sort of Native American kind of way, then he began to slowly stagger toward me. At a point I could see that he was entirely engulfed in a cloud of mosquitoes and was he going completely insane.
Having everything in my backpack, I took out a can of U.S. Army surplus bug spray, jogged out to meet the guy, and handed him the can. He sprayed it directly into his own face and hair, then all over his body. The mosquitoes backed off. He handed me the can of bug spray, thanked me, then turned and went right back to the corner.
Even though it was light as day, and it could just as easily have been 4:00 AM as 4:00 PM, I hoisted my pack onto my back and headed into the woods. I’d had enough for that day, whenever it started.
The next part of this story is my best hitchhiking story, so I won’t start it now. I can only say that I’m surprised as hell that I haven’t had to tell it in 286 newsletters. I was pretty sure when I started that I’d tell all my best stories and run out of shit in two weeks. It’s been nine months.
I love it. Get up and write a story about anything. Why not?
I’m going to try and have a good day today, come what may. But whatever the day may be, I say, “Bring it on, one, two, three.” Like James Cagney in Billy Wilder’s wacky One, Two, Three (1961). It’s all about movies.