The traffic advisory billboard was lighted and displayed a long message that said, “Avoid picking up hitch-hikers between miles 53 and 60. TRPR cars in area.”“What now?,” I wondered out loud, “and what are TRPR cars?” I was several miles farther down Turnagain Arm before I realized what the message was: don’t pickup hitchhikers near the Hope cutoff and Summit Lake and troopers would be in the area. This was after midnight at the end of a very long thirty-six hours trying to get home from Hooper Bay, and the last thing I needed was to pick up some serial killer hitchhiking along the Seward Highway. Thanks for the warning.
Hooper Bay is a Yup’ik village on the Bering Sea almost due west of Anchorage, and when I say “on the Bering Sea” I mean it. The air strip is about a hundred yards and ten feet elevation from the high tide line, and the only protection from the onshore “breeze” is a row of low dunes. Landing in Hooper Bay on time is a rare experience especially in winter. If the wind isn’t howling, fog may roll in or snowfall and wind create may collude to create whiteout, or perhaps freezing rain or icing condition will keep the runway closed. Or Hooper Bay may be open but Bethel may be “down”.
I am usually in Hooper Bay all week, and Friday I start checking the weather reports and watching the horizon. This Friday was a mild day with warm temperatures, light winds, and high overcast, one of those rare days when one doesn’t worry about being weathered-in. By four p.m. though, the wind dropped and fog rolled in off the Bering, and we couldn’t see the airport from the school -- not good.
Sure enough after several calls, delays, and weather holds, all flights were canceled, and I made arrangements for another night in Hooper Bay, changed my Bethel to Anchorage flight for the next day, and called my wife. Saturday was a mild windy day -- not too windy to fly. Just before my Ravn flight was due, they announced they were canceling because of a cloud of Russian volcanic ash drifting into Alaskan air space. Luckily, I was able to jump on a Grant Aviation flight that left before the alert, so I made it safely to Bethel where my Alaska Air flight was cancelled due to the same cloud of ash. The evening flight was full so I was booked for the next day.
I chose to try standby on the evening flight, and after a leisurely day sitting around the Bethel terminal -- ironically, the only place left in America without wifi or coffee. By ten o’clock Saturday night I was napping on a 737 bound for Anchorage. By 11:45 p.m. I was scrapping ice off my truck windshield and thinking of completing the last leg of a long journey home. It should be a pleasant late night drive on a bare and empty Seward Highway, just me watching for northern lights and listening to the oddballs on late night radio. With the lack of snow this winter I wasn’t even worried about moose on the road.
Then the sign, the one about not picking up hitchhikers. I wondered if there are outlaws hanging out in the mountains preying on unsuspecting motorists or some guy cabin-fever crazy on a killing spree chased into the mountains by the troopers. I turned off the late night talk radio; these alien abduction fantasies weren't helping. At portage I pulled over to watch the northern lights, turning off my headlights for the full effect. Then I rolled on over Turnagain Pass, gawking at the lack of snow to reflect the light of the half moon popping in and from behind the mountains.
Then movement on the side of the road, I slowed, I looked. I realized I had just past the Hope cutoff, mile 55. Some one stepped from the opposite shoulder, signing with the near hand, flagging me down. A shadowed face under a hood, a figure in grey on the road. The truck cab was suddenly ice cold and I could have been watching a thriller at a drive-in theater, but this was 1 am on the Seward Highway.
I came to a near stop. Then my brain engaged and I drove on. The warning sign flashing in my memory. But I came off the gas, haunted by my homestead Alaska upbringing. How could I leave someone on the side of road at night in the dead of winter? But I don’t have a gun and he might. I should call some one, I should turn around, maybe someone’s car ran off the road. Shit, my cell phone is dead and the charger cord is in the other car. A mile marker appears in the headlights and I lean in, Mile 54. The debate played out in my head, “Do you want to get shot, carjacked?” “It’s winter, after one in the morning. You don’t leave people.” Twice I slowed to turn around and then restarted.
A trooper phone! Wasn’t there an emergency roadside phone along here. I started looking for it. Did they still have them with all the cell phones in use? MILE 55, Adopt a Highway, Scenic Pullout I was reading signs for the first time that I have past for forty years. SHIT! Dan. Just go home, but the image stayed in my vision like a light bulb does when you’re looking at it when it turns on. That grey hooded figure waving me down in the halo of the electric transfer station or whatever that mass of lights, poles and transformers was on the side of the road at near mile 54.
Then I saw it, the "emergency call box ahead" sign. A white old fashioned telephone on a blue background. I wondered -- strange to think of it then -- how no phones look like this now, the bent barbell look of a receiver on a boxy base. Would some kid today even know what that was? As soon as I saw it, I remembered that the phone was in the parking lot of the Summit Lake Lodge. I pulled in excited and, in a way, disappointed that I was abandoning this rescue to the authorities, definitely not the old homestead way. The phone was high on a pole so that even I at six foot two was reaching up to open the box. Even with the latches released, it wouldn’t open so I used my ice scraper to pry the frozen door open. No phone, not like I was expecting, just a red button with directions to push it to talk and release to listen. And I did just that. The 911 operator asked me some questions and said troopers were en-route. I wanted to ask questions, I wanted the backstory, and wanted closure, but I knew better. They were working on closure, the troopers were and still are. I was left empty-handed after passing the buck with the press of that red button, but I couldn’t quit thinking maybe I should have turned around.
When I met the troopers a few minutes later, roaring north from the Y all lights and sirens, I imagined that shadow in grey disappearing into the trees choosing one more night of freedom, cold and scary as it might be there in the mountain winter forest alone.
Because I travel for work, I’ve spent many late nights on this empty winter highway in every kind of weather, and the man in grey is not my first encounter. There was lynx at two a.m. near Devil’s Pass trailhead. He was crossing the highway and paused at the edge of the right-away and turned back to hold a stare-down with me in the minus-ten, white glare of moonlight on snow. The cat was so lean and ghostlike that its shadow looked more real than the cat itself. I remember a anther night along Snow River when a bull moose stood the same way on the shoulder looking into my truck cab like he might recognize the driver from some other highway. Ptarmigan, rabbits, and porcupine, -- one so big I turned around to make sure it wasn’t a black bear -- all out on the road at night. Most nights though, the road is desolate of life and of mystery, and it’s just a long drive home. But this night I am the passerby on the road in a film noir, a pair of headlights no more distinct than the mileposts.
Home at last in my house on the lake, I read the news on the laptop with a whiskey in my hand, finally reading the back story and watching the video by another pair of headlights on that highway. Now I wait for for closure, waiting for the troopers to call and say, “good job! Thanks to you we got him.” But no call came, and I feel bit sorry for those people on the highway tonight while I sleep, the ones in uniforms and squad cars, and the one alone in the cold mountain woods.