I spotted the hitchhiker just north of Wasilla. I immediately sized him up. Large backpack, wearing top-of-the-line orange outer shell, well-groomed, clear eyes, made eye contact, and was next to large shoulder for pulling over.
As a former hitchhiker I felt a common bond. I have hitchhiked on my wilderness outings when canoeing, rafting, or hiking out to a location far from my car. A couple years back I rafted down the Nenana River for 4 hours into the teeth of a snowstorm with a caribou; destination was the Denali Highway. I was hoping to thumb a ride back to my vehicle on Brushkana Creek. I was stiff with cold as I hobbled out to the road, my hands too numb to tie my frozen laces. I waited less than a minute and a truck came along. I heard my name shouted out as I gazed into the eyes of John Dean; contractor I have worked with over the years. What a relief- I viewed it as providential.
I recall many years ago picking up an elderly lady outside Eagle River. I thought it very odd that this gal in the full length coat, carrying a paper bag would be hitchhiking. She was very pleasant, even joyful describing her life. I was headed to Glennallen and stopped for gas. She said this was the exact place she wanted to go for some refreshments. After gassing up I went inside to see if she wanted to continue. She was nowhere to be seen and the attendant shook his head. She had vanished.
Then there was the couple I picked up outside Fairbanks. I was heading back from the Brooks Range. The guy wanted to grab a beer and asked for a ride. I told him that I would give him a ride, but no booze. He described his life story to me. He was very happy that he had his new girlfriend with- they had just met in Fairbanks. She was a pleasant Yupik gal from Quinhagak; it turned out that I knew members of her family from working in the area. The guy was becoming more raucous and demonstrative, with slurred speech. It was then that I suspected the large coke bottle they were sharing had more than coke. I remembered a wayside shelter and dropped them off.
Last year I picked up 3 German backpackers headed back to Anchorage from Denali Park. They wanted to stay at a campground near Anchorage, so I brought them directly to the Eagle River campground. They found a great site right on the river. I had this guy north of Wasilla pegged as a Denali Park backpacker.
“You going to Denali Park?”, I shouted. “To Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay” came the reply, in broken English. I didn’t smell any booze- good sign. “You Russian?” I rightly guessed. His name was Artem Rakhno, (pronounced Ar-Chum). I had heard that all Russians liked vodka, but Artem said he did not drink. I got his opinion on topics ranging from Putin, Gorbachev, Trump, the KGB, and his family. He explained with pride that he was from the best and only European city in Russia, St. Petersburg.
Artem said that he started hitchhiking in Miami in March. He headed across the southern tier of states and drove north along the west coast. Artem was warned of the notorious California drivers when hitching a ride. He said it was the Alaskan drivers that he would remember.
One Alaskan driver was wearing an ankle-monitor; he confessed all his past discretions to Artem. He also got a ride from a commercial fisherman on the Kenai Peninsula who was binge drinking while he demonstrated his stunt-driving skills. Artem demanded to exit the vehicle; followed by videotaping the black smoke from the tires as the stuntman circled brodies.
After I dropped him off he caught a ride heading north- destination Prudhoe Bay. The Fairbanks driver identified himself as an Air Force General & commercial airline pilot. The General was headed north, attempting to rendezvous with his girlfriend. The General repeatedly spoke with her on cell phone, attempting to meet. Between calls with the girlfriend, the General would scream out altitude levels as if in an aircraft. He advised Artem that he had top-level Secret clearance that gave him the inside story on the North Koreans. The General would point out fallen birch trees as evidence that a moose had just crossed the highway, typically knocking down a birch tree upon hurriedly crossing. (Artem asked me if this was evidence of a moose crossing). After driving half the night they ended up in Manley Hot Springs, still no sign of the General’s girlfriend. They headed back- Artem said they arrived back in Fairbanks the following morning, where they had started.
Artem’s luck changed after that. A truck driver gave him a ride all the way to Prudhoe Bay & back. Artem took many photos & videos of grizzlies, also a possible grizzly bear/polar bear cross-breed. His clearest memory was the all-you can-eat meal in Prudhoe Bay.
I put Artem up for a few days. He greatly appreciated the Alaska Club guest pass. He had a tremendous appetite, downing skillets full of caribou steak & Yukon Gold potatoes, plus he usually polished off near a dozen eggs a day.
He has some YouTube videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6RmSahRdpF0
Also his web page: Puteshestvennik.com