Hitchhiking with a Lunatic

(In the summer of 2008, my friend Jim somehow convinced me to travel to Alaska with him and work at a gas station. What follows is an excerpt from my book on the ordeal, Memoirs of a Gas Station. This particular passage describes one of Jim’s attempts to hitchhike from Denali to Fairbanks – I was not with him on this trip, but Jim tells a colorful enough story that a toddler could probably recollect it with 80% accuracy. I’m shooting for 75. I once asked him to put the story into writing himself, but in the midst of assembling a prolific collection of wolf shirts he never found the time. Alas, this will have to do.)

Another car zoomed past, showing no absolutely zero sign of stopping. This was becoming routine. Jim had been walking alongside the road for what he estimated to be an hour and a half, and was getting nowhere. While hitchhiking is an inexact science, you can usually count on some kind soul (or pothead) to pick you up…especially in Alaska, where the laws are a little more lax. Today was not one of those days. The highway was somewhat remote and the cars were sparse, so Jim knew it wouldn’t be all that quick. But he was getting concerned. He had left early in the morning, but the sun was getting warm now. The plan was to get to Fairbanks and back before evening, and it was looking increasingly unlikely.

Another ten minutes passed without any cars. He wasn’t even turning and holding out his thumb when he saw a vehicle anymore; he just held out the Fairbanks sign and kept looking forward. Although his pack was nearly empty, it was getting heavier, and his shirt began getting moist under the straps. He glanced behind him and saw nothing but rock and highway.

The idea of giving up crossed Jim’s mind. He could turn back and be home in another 90 minutes, which would leave enough time to do something constructive with the rest of the day. There was always next weekend to try it again.

He heard a rumble behind him and didn’t turn around. Slowly walking forward with his head half-hung, Jim held the sign to his left when the sound got closer. He knew the vehicle was bigger than a car when it zoomed past by the way it felt. When it was a few hundred yards down the road, Jim raised his head to look. It was an old Winnebago, probably from the early nineties, loaded down with gear. Sleeping bags, tents, random canisters—even a canoe on top. He watched in fascination as the motor home moved down the highway, baffled that it didn’t topple from all the gear throwing it off balance.

The brake lights lit up, then stayed lit for a few seconds, and the Winnebago moved to the side of the road. Jim realized he had a ride and began jogging to go meet the good Samaritan(s). He quietly thanked God.

As he approached, Jim saw a husky bearded man in overalls exit the driver door and disappear behind the vehicle. He got closer and a young boy no more than 12 years old hopped out of the passenger side. The boy yelled at Jim when he was close enough to hear.

“Come on in!” he shouted. Jim began jogging faster, almost running now. He didn’t want to piss off his ride by making them wait. The boy greeted him as he reached the Winnebago. He was fairly normal-looking kid for his age; lanky, buzz-cut, what appeared to be a kool-aide stain around his mouth. He was friendly and exuberant in helping Jim into the back seat of the motor home, where his younger sister was sitting. There was as much shit on the inside of the Winnebago as there was on the outside. The boy introduced himself as Troy, and his sister as Starlight. Starlight must’ve been eight or nine, and probably had ADHD. Her blonde hair was in loose curls and pulled and pinned in every direction. She had roughly half her teeth, and was equally happy to invite Jim into the vehicle. Starlight held a small cat in her lap, which she tugged and squeezed every time she got excited. This happened a lot, and thus the cat was subject to a certain amount of abuse.

Their father was relieving himself outside. Jim tried to get comfortable amongst the mess in the backseat, while Starlight and Troy eagerly smiled at him. They were happy to have a new passenger.

The driver side door opened and revealed the man, who greeted Jim as he climbed back into his seat. He was nearly as odd as his children, and his words boomed through the cabin of the motor home. The clothes he wore must’ve been at least a decade old and probably hadn’t been washed much in that time. His beard was an overgrown and tangled mess of black and gray. The man’s actions were constantly dramatic; the climb into the driver seat looked like an epic struggle, he spoke in a tone just below shouting, and his little round eyes darted around quickly. He seemed to be constantly on edge about something. The man introduced himself as Vince.

Jim thanked him profusely for the ride. Vince told him not to mention it and closed the door. He was just helping out a brother in need. Troy and his father asked Jim the standard questions as the Winnebago got moving—where are you from, where are you going, where do you work, etc. Starlight smiled and stared as she twisted the cat’s ears in unnatural directions. Jim gave them his background and explained he was trying to get to Fairbanks. Vince watched the road and stroked his beard as he took in this information, as if he was making a life-changing decision. You’re in luck, he told Jim, because they were headed to Fairbanks as well. They would be able to get him to his destination. While this satisfied Jim, it also made him uneasy knowing he would be sharing a Winnebago with this family for over 100 miles. Vince promptly informed him that it might take a little longer than expected, because their vehicle didn’t go over 50 miles per hour. Jim nodded as if it was no big deal.

He asked Vince about himself and his family. The man was happy to oblige, and launched into a narrative outlining his world views and plans. They had fled Anchorage to escape the oppressive government and schooling system, and were now headed north in search of deliverance. A place they could get away from The Man. They didn’t know exactly where they were headed, but the plan was to hang out in Fairbanks for a few weeks while they plotted their next move. Vince was currently unemployed; the trip had required him to quit his job. They’d left his wife (and the kids’ mother) in Anchorage to work for a few more weeks and make enough money to finance the move. She would meet them in Fairbanks at some point.

Vince explained he thought about everything spiritually first and logically second. This was the best way to do things. They were being oppressed and abused by the ruthless Anchorage government, and the spiritual and logical decision was to flee. It was very possible the government was still after them, although Vince doubted it would follow very far north. The schooling system down there was a gigantic conspiracy that would certainly ruin the children’s lives if they stayed in it much longer. Vince would home school them from here on out.

He spoke more about the atrocities of government and public school as the Winnebago rambled down the road. Vince began asking Jim if he agreed with what he was saying, and Jim wholeheartedly endorsed all of his opinions. Down with the oppressors. He wasn’t about to disagree with this guy. Soon, Starlight was hopping around and yelling that she had to pee. Vince sighed and maneuvered the vehicle to the side of the road once again. He told Troy to go help his sister, and they both ran out the door as soon as it opened, leaving Jim alone with Vince in the RV. The man leaned back in his seat and was silent for thirty seconds before he spoke again.

“Starlight has not turned out the way we planned.” His voice was quieter now, and he didn’t move his gaze from the road.

Jim didn’t know how to respond. “Oh, really?”

“Troy is shaping up to be an exceptional man. Strong will, very intelligent, good problem solving skills. I am very pleased with Troy’s development. But Starlight…it hasn’t been the same with her. There’s a difference between the spirit of a boy and a girl, you know. You can tame a boy’s spirit, but you cannot tame a girl in the same way. And that’s what is happening with Starlight. I’m not able to tame her spirit.”

As usual, Jim agreed. Whatever you say.

The kids ran back into the Winnebago as fast as they had run out. Vince started the engine and slowly brought the vehicle up to speed (around 48 mph) again. He asked Troy if everything had gone alright. According to Troy, everything went smoothly. Starlight resumed molesting the cat, and the drive continued.

“Young man,” Vince said suddenly as he looked at Jim, “I need to know something. What is your…final destination for today?”

Jim was slightly confused but repeated what he said earlier. “Um, I’m hoping to get to Fairbanks.”

“I know. But exactly, where is your final destination. Where, exactly, do you hope to end up?”

“Well, I want to get Wal Mart or Fred Meyer at some point.”

Vince resumed stroking his beard as he took in the information. He squinted his eyes and nodded his head periodically, still navigating the highway. After a minute of thought, he spoke again. “Okay. Thinking spiritually and logically, I believe we can get you to Fred Meyer in Fairbanks.”

Jim thanked him and said that would be great.

“Now,” Vince continued, “spiritually and logically, what can you do for our cause? What can you…contribute…to our journey?”

He didn’t expect this. But hey, they were giving him a ride. And they might be bat-shit crazy. Maybe if he offered them money, they wouldn’t chop him up and eat him.

“Oh, how does 20 bucks sound?”

Vince stared straight ahead and didn’t say anything. Jim decided to up the ante.

“Or how about 30?”

“Hey!” Vince exploded with happiness. “That would be just great. Did you hear that kids? This young man is going to help us on our trip!”

The kids agreed it was a truly magnificent contribution.

An hour passed. The Winnebago was approaching Nenana, a small river town which was the only real sign of civilization until Fairbanks. Starlight had to pee again, and Vince informed his passengers they would be stopping for gas and snacks. There was a small convenience store in the gas station, and Jim saw an opportunity to pay his debt and be done with it.

“I tell you what,” he said. “Instead of just giving you money, how about we all go inside and I buy you guys some groceries? They have a lot of stuff, and it should add up to around 30 dollars.”

Vince was again overjoyed. “Well how about that! What a kind man. That would be just terrific, wouldn’t it kids? He’s going to buy us groceries!” Starlight and Troy nodded in approval.

When his jubilation subsided, he paused and lowered his voice. “You know,” he said, “I’m not sure if this is the best place for a donation like that to happen. A place like this just…doesn’t have the selection of a larger store.”

Jim said nothing.

“Why don’t we just wait until we make it to Fairbanks, and we can do the grocery buying there?” He looked at Jim.

“Sure.”

Another hour. The Winnebago was finally pulling into the outskirts of Fairbanks. Thank God. It had been a long 2+ hours of anarchy lectures and attempted cat murder, and Jim was ready to be done with it.

Vince asked the best way to get Jim to the Fred Meyer. Jim told him where it was, and Troy quickly recited the quickest route to get there. Over the course of the ride, Jim had found the kid to be remarkably intelligent. He seemed to be articulate for his age, and was thoroughly impressive when reciting math tables. It was anyone’s guess as to what would happen to this intelligence under the tutelage of his father.

The man promptly dismissed his son’s route suggestion. That would take them near an Army base, and Vince was having no part of that. The place would be swarming with government swine, and he would not go anywhere within miles of it. He didn’t want to give the oppressors a foothold. He and Troy argued for a while. Vince finally put his foot down and took the long route, which added another 15 minutes. Jim was getting antsy.

After another eternity, they pulled into the Fred Meyer parking lot. Jim quickly thanked them and prepared to hop out. Vince began stroking his beard as he gazed out the windshield, then at Jim.

“Well, here you are,” he said. “We’ve delivered you to Fred Meyer. Now all that’s left is your contribution.”

Jim rifled through his wallet and realized he only had seven dollars cash. That certainly wouldn’t satisfy the man. He explained that he’d need to go inside and use the ATM, that he’d just give them the money and let them buy the groceries themselves. He told Vince to wait there, and he would be out in a minute.

The ATM was easy to find, right inside the sliding doors. Jim shook his head as he withdrew the money. He could’ve damn near paid his way to Fairbanks on a legit bus for $30. Whatever. He would give them the money and be done with it.

The Winnebago was waiting where he left it. He opened the driver side door and handed the cash up to Vince, who thanked him and reminded him to avoid the oppressors at all costs. Jim closed the door and went back into the store. A wave of relief washed over him. It cost him three and a half hours pay, but he made it to Fairbanks and was now rid of the strange family. He checked his watch and figured he had enough time to do a healthy amount of shopping before he had to start trying to catch rides back. Because of the large volume of cars in the area, it would probably be easier to get picked up going back. He made a silent promise to avoid old Winnebagos from there on out.

The store was huge, and he had a lot of work in front of him. He walked to the food section and decided to start there. Camping food was a priority; stuff that’s quick, easy, light, and cheap. Ramen noodles were a staple. He found some instant potatoes and tossed a few packets into his basket.

Troy was standing at the end of the aisle. Jim didn’t believe it was him at first, but after staring for a few seconds he realized it wasn’t just a look-alike. Troy saw him and yelled down the aisle.

“There you are! My dad’s looking for you!” He motioned for Jim to follow him. Jim stood there for a moment and considered refusing or just running, but that wouldn’t do any good. He reluctantly followed the boy. This was weird.

They moved out into the open area of the store and saw Vince and Starlight standing by the checkout aisles. Jim walked over to see what they wanted, and Vince’s eyebrows rose as he drew near. He wasn’t sure if this was the smart thing to do, but he saw no other option. Well, except running. He kept that option open. Vince spoke first.

“I think there’s been a misunderstanding here. You see, I was of the impression you were going to buy us some groceries.”

Um…what? Did he forget about the $30 he just received? Jim explained that he had said that initially, assuming they were buying groceries in Nenana. Since they didn’t want to do that, he just gave them the money so they could buy their own fucking groceries.

“No,” Vince said matter-of-factly. “No, I don’t believe that’s what you said. I specifically remember you telling us you were going to buy us some groceries.”

“Yeah, but instead, I just gave you the money. It’s the same thing. You can buy whatever you want with it. It’s my contribution.”

Vince paused and eyed him. “Kids, do you remember this young man saying he was going to buy us groceries?” The kids nodded and agreed.

Jim stared at the man. He was either legitimately crazy or just a slimy bastard. It didn’t really matter which. He wasn’t budging. What a dick. Starlight was standing there holding a large bag of trail mix and a few packs of beef jerky. Her eyes gazed hopefully up at Jim, as she offered the items for him to take and buy. Jim looked at her, then back up at Vince. Without a word, he grabbed the fucking food, placed it in front of the nearest fucking cashier, waited while she fucking rang it up, and paid with his fucking debit card. It came to $24.17. He handed the plastic bag to the old man without looking at him and began walking away. Vince thanked him loudly for his contribution to their cause. Jim didn’t look back.

Four hours later Jim had bought everything he needed. His pack was loaded down with food and camping gear. He was tired and still pissed about what had transpired earlier. The thought of trying to find another ride was not an appealing one, but the sun was getting low. On his way to the highway, he spotted a parked bus from the Princess Lodge—another hotel located in Denali. There was a short, husky woman with bleached hair having a cigarette out in front of it. Jim pegged her as the driver, and he was right. He introduced himself, explained his situation, and found out that the bus was heading back to Denali in 30 minutes. Jim practically begged the woman to let him ride along. Please, he said, I need to get back tonight. She inhaled deeply on her cigarette as she thought it over. They weren’t supposed to do this, she told him, but after much deliberation, she supposed it would be alright if he sat in the back and didn’t talk to anyone. He gladly obliged, found a seat in the rear, and slept the entire way home.

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Sam Neumann | sam@samneumann.com | Boulder, CO