Roadside Oil Boom
This oil rig in a farmer’s field on the Bakken Formation in North Dakota is one of hundreds I saw hitchhiking down from Canada, along with fires burning from the tops of gas towers. You could see North Dakota’s oil boom from the road.
“Love will find a way through paths wolves fear to prey.”
On the longest single hitchhike ride of my life, my widower regaled me with stories of deadly Russian roulette, steamy affairs, attempted murder, miraculous escapes from death and a wolf bite on the ass that turned a woman into a wife and a wolf into a man. We also got temporarily stranded when his vehicle broke down, and he spent 2 hours reading a guide on oil filters to fix it. Luckily, he’s a good mechanic and we didn’t have a movie-level car breakdown.
Such are the dynamics of long car rides with strangers and a curious passenger.
Larry Stout and I drove Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, North Dakota and Minnesota.
Along the Alaska and the Trans-Canada highways we crossed mountain ranges and rivers on the way to the Mississippi. For five days and nearly 3,000 miles we ate, drank and slept in that old pick-up truck.
We covered serious territory, geographic and personal.
Take a Tok
In August, Alaska’s days were still long and the state was experiencing a record number of days hot days, without rain.
My last carnival was at the Tanana Valley State Fair in Fairbanks. I hitched 200 miles to Tok the previous day on my way to the lower 48. One of my lifts was an Alaska Highway worker who let me stay overnight on his trailer couch in Tok.
In the morning, the public works worker gave me a treasure trove of trail mixes and I ate as I walked to the closest gas station.
Just seconds after I put down my backpack and sleeping bag, I spotted Larry’s Indiana plates but it was he who approached me about a ride. He was cautious about how far we’d go but I said anywhere was fine.
Tok, population about 1,000, prides itself on recording the lowest temperature in the United States, -80 Fahrenheit in 2009. It is a former boom town nicknamed “Million Dollar Camp” when the highway was being built.
Its a small town with motels and campgrounds for travelers coming and going across the Canadian border. Previously, hitchhiking up to Anchorage from Chicago, I spent a couple days there beside the road.
Larry began the ride by saying he is either 45 or 48 years old, he wasn’t sure. His twangy stories were told with grammatical “eccentricities.”
“I done did this” and “I learned him that.”
Larry hauled a fiber optics trailer from Indiana to Anchorage and was returning home in his 1994 Chevrolet Ram 3500, 6.5 diesel with 250,000 miles.
He’s a jack of all trades, including truck driver, mechanic, tree trimmer, roofer, concrete worker and handyman.
We didn’t get to the edge of Tok before I knew I was in the presence of an American original at work.
American doll, Hoosier wolf
Over the five days and the thousands of miles he told story after story but one of the most compelling started with a jarring image.
“I thought I was losing my mind,” he said. “I yelled. I cried. I cursed. I cursed.”
He began describing a disorienting grief. When his wife began dying he began losing his grip.
He kept saying “I was losing my mind” like he couldn’t believe it himself.
It all started when he moved to her small town south of Indianapolis. He rented a place in her mother’s apartment building.
He painted a picture of himself as a clever and hard worker at the local hardware store. In his early 20s he was the personification of amped up energy, which he still is so I can only imagine a younger version.
He’d go to her door and ask her out for a drink and she’d swear at him and slam the door.
She was a Lawless from Hazard, Kentucky, he said. She was a tiny rebel who could swear with the best of them.
“She looked like a little doll. Blond, brown-eyed, little titties and an accent like mine only even more southern. She was 95 pounds tops, TOPS. She was 39 years old but she looked 25. I was 23.”
One day he realized his pitch was all wrong.
“I said, ‘I know what’s wrong, you don’t like to drink!’ So I asked her out to dinner.”
That first date at the local diner they talked about carburetors, she was a mechanic too and proud she knew how to put them together.
When he walked here up the stairs to her door, he let out a wolf howl and bit her on the ass.
Carburetor talk. A wolf howl. An ass bite.
It turned out to be the primal, epiphanal moment of Larry’s life.
He quit drinking and they married. They had 20-some years together before cancer took her.
He married one of her best friends after she was gone and the jack-of-all-trades is slowly rebuilding himself. He appears to be summoning up parts of who at he once was to come up with something new.
After five days and all those stories later, he dropped me off at 2 am at a McDonald’s in a tough part of St. Paul.
I was pretty sure I was near the Minnesota State Fair but I had the dead of morning still to survive before going to look for work at the fairgrounds.
At an all-night diner I pulled out my laptop and began typing his stories before the afterglow wore off.
Listening to stories on long car rides you can’t make eye contact for long. So you must listen as you look out the window.
On this route, out this window, stunning scenery flew past.
So there it was, a curious effect, wild landscapes and the stories of a new person forming in the echo of a wolf’s howl.
This is my 11th month in my year of working in traveling carnivals and hitchhiking between jumps. I’ve traveled 20,000 miles, through 36 states, Canada and Mexico. I’ve worked for eight carnivals. I’m working on what to do in my last month.