IT’S 1600 KILOMETERS to Whitehorse; a long way to go on a Tuesday. I am nervous. We are not going to the Yukon for any great reason. We are going to the Yukon because the three months we’ve just been contracted to spend in the woods of British Columbia are over and because we think we don’t want to be out of the woods yet.
This is how Nic and I have come to find ourselves deep in the forested interior of British Columbia, on the shoulder of a highway going north from the town of Prince George with a set of drybags and two climbing packs. Prince George, colloquially known as PG, is some 800 kilometers north of Vancouver, and home to 70,000 people, almost all of them either miners or loggers. Among locals, PG is notoriously dicey, and we haven’t slept much because we were kept up last night by the wailings of some people evidently in the throes of a crack cocaine high.
Despite this, the sun is shining and morale is high. We make an ideal hitchhiking team, come to think of it. I’m short and have long hair and wear a skirt, and Nic is built like a lumberjack and wears flannel and smiles a lot. Both of us would have problems (of different natures) hitchhiking alone, but together we are more than the sum of our parts, so I’m cautiously optimistic.
Ride 1: Chris
Vehicle: Rusty pickup truck
Route: Prince George, BC → Vanderhoof, BC
Things get off to a great start and we get a ride within 20 minutes. A clean-cut guy about our age opens the door of his pickup. “You’re lucky you’re outside of city jurisdiction. It’s illegal to hitchhike around Prince George,” he says.
“Oh, the penitentiary. They don’t want escaped convicts moving about. Do you want a ride?”
I am glad to be leaving Prince George.
Chris is an affable and polite young man. He works as a mechanic on a gold mine project. We talk about how easy it is to get resource extraction jobs in northern BC (“There’s a lot of money to be made here if you don’t care about the environment.”), about how mines get to -40C in February, about his plans for the week. He’s going to go camping at a lake in Fort Saint James, so he can give us a ride to Vanderhoof, which is around 100 kilometers down the road.
The ride goes by pleasantly and uneventfully, with the sunny rolling hills of the BC interior meandering past the window, and I while away the time by mentally collecting odd road signs. (Prime specimens: “Fort Saint James: Home to World Class Chicken Racing”, “Fake Christians are Concerned with the World’s Toys”, and, on a tree in the middle of a field, “Hot Dogs!!!”).
Ride 2: Todd
Vehicle: Nondescript Subaru
Route: Vanderhoof, BC → Kitwanga, BC
In Vanderhoof, we wait another 30 minutes before getting picked up by Todd, a plumber who works in Terrace, who says he’ll be happy to take us all the way to the turnoff to Alaska, which is another 400 kilometers down the road. This is the advantage of hitchhiking in this part of the world — though traffic is hard to come by, the driving distances are long.
There’s a sort of unwritten contract when it comes to hitchhiking. You’re being given a free ride to wherever, and in exchange you’re company, you’re a sounding board, you’re a conversational partner, you’re a way to make the miles go by a little faster. I listen to Todd talk about his friend’s stag night, I listen to Todd talk about fishing regulations, I listen to Todd talk about how much he loves Eric Clapton. I offer affirmation and light talk while Nic sleeps in the back.
We bond over Eric Clapton and The Doors. I haven’t listened to either Eric Clapton or The Doors in some time, but my mom used to play Layla in the car when I was a kid, and this is enough. Todd begins ranting about First Nations politics (northern BC is home to many First Nations communities, and the history of their interaction with the Canadian government is complex and often devastatingly sad). I don’t agree with him at all, but the unwritten contract prevents me from arguing.
The scenery becomes increasingly more beautiful as we move out to the coast. The relatively boring rolling hills of the interior give way to bigger mountains and denser forests, pristine lakes and swift rivers. We stop in the logging town of Smithers at Todd’s favourite microbrewery (Plan B), and we spend the early evening drinking fantastic oatmeal stout and deciding that life’s alright after all. By eight, Todd has dropped us off in the tiny community of Kitwanga, which is dominated by giant sign that says “North to Yukon/Alaska →”.
The kilometers are long here, and it’s best not to make wrong turns.
Ride 3: Bobby
Vehicle: Honda sedan with temperamental transmission
Route: Kitwanga, BC → Whitehorse, YT
We spend the night in our tent by the river, eating instant noodles and watching Kitwanga’s fishermen haul in their catches. In the morning, we walk the first few hundred meters north to Alaska, set our packs down, and stick out our thumbs.
We have been standing on the side of the road for approximately 25 minutes watching logging trucks go by when a small sedan pulls up to the shoulder with a careening screech. We grab our climbing packs and run — waddle, really — towards it.
The first thing I notice about the driver is his shaved head, which exposes an intricate clockwork skull tattoo. He grins.
“I’m Bobby. Where ya headed?”
“Oh shit, me too. Throw your stuff in the back.”
This moment marks the beginning of some 20 hours spent in the car with Bobby, bon vivant and pyromaniac extraordinaire. Within 15 minutes he’s told us the outline of his story: worked as a bricklayer in Vancouver, broke up with crazy hippie girlfriend, got punched in the face by a bouncer last Thursday (which explains the general lumpiness), said fuck it, packed his big black dog Voodoo in his battered standard-transmission Honda, and started driving to the Yukon.
I sit next to him and listen, fascinated, while taking stock of Bobby’s many tattoos. They include a shotgunned beer can, a no smoking sign, the Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here man, and (my personal favourite) a stick-and-poke on his ear that says, succinctly, “Fuckin’ eh!”
The snowcapped coastal mountains fly by our window as we talk. Nic and I talk about ourselves for a bit, but it’s much more interesting to listen to Bobby. We find out some interesting facts: He’s 26 and has recently read the third book of his entire life; when he gets drunk he likes to burn things (sometimes he just lists things he has burned…to his credit, I get the impression that he only burns his own possessions, not other people’s.); his sister-in-law hates him.
The more we talk to him, the more we get the feeling that Bobby is really great, the embodiment of a live-and-let-live philosophy that seems to have served him well. At night, we stop at Good Hope Lake just south of the BC / Yukon border and cook noodles. The sky is strange colours when we go to bed and different strange colours when we wake up.
The next morning, we cross the Yukon border and into fire country. Unlike in BC, where forest fires pose a significant threat to communities, Yukon is a place where very few people live, so when the forests ignite naturally, the government lets them burn. We drive through kilometers of charred coat hangers. It’s surreal and hauntingly beautiful, and none of us have ever seen anything like it.
Bobby wonders why forests burn so much, and so I explain what little I once learned about forest succession somewhere far south of here: When the conifers become mature, eventually probability dictates that the forest catches fire and they die, but the fire renews the soil nutrients and aspen begin to grow, providing the shade the conifers need to come up after them again, a perennial cycle of birth and death. Bobby listens, genuinely interested. “So it’s like the circle of life, man!” It’s pretty much exactly the circle of life, and all I can do is stand in awe of it.
The hours go by quickly. There is only one road here and we are surrounded on all sides by trees and flowers, and so we’re in a sort of dazed sunny haze of scenery, which makes it easy to just stare and chat idly. All the cars we pass seem to be American camper-trailers heading south, and Nic and I realize how very lucky we were to get a ride so effortlessly. By midday we’re in Yukon’s capital and comparatively bustling metropolis, Whitehorse, having hitchhiked 1600 kilometers in 48 hours. We thank Bobby effusively and give him gas money before we split up to face Jack London’s North.
Epilogue: Three weeks later, after a 700-kilometer paddle down the Yukon River, we found ourselves in the northern gold rush town of Dawson City. We were about to grab a beer at a pub when we noticed a rather familiar big black dog leashed to a bench. We walked in, and sure enough, there was Bobby at the bar, making friends with the bartender and an Austrian couchsurfer.
After dropping us off, he drove to Chicken, Alaska. He picked up the Austrian and they’d only driven about 20 kilometers in the direction of Dawson when the Honda’s transmission gave out. In true Bobby style, he got out of the car, put his remaining possessions into a backpack, and stuck out his thumb.