Friday, March 23, 2007

Beavis & Me, Part 2

Unfortunately, while the historic Great Alaskan Highway may have begun in Dawson Creek, British Columbia (above), back in 1965 the "Great Highway" part of the deal ended thirty miles north of town where the route became a rocky, wretched gravel road that stretched for hundreds and hundreds of dusty miles.

Although we were once again running short on money, Gene and I both felt that we could make it to Alaska. As ever, we slept in the car. When we were hungry for something more than candy bars, I would stop beside a river, pull out my fishing rod, and promptly catch supper. Some of the streams were so clear that I could watch the large trout and Arctic Graylings as they eyed, chased and then hit the spinner. With absolutely no amenities, we would start a small fire on a gravel bar, run a green stick through the gutted fish, then place it on two forked sticks at either end of the fire. In ten minutes, we were ready to eat.

As we moved further north though, and especially after we entered the Yukon, my fishing forays became more infrequent. Although we listened with both ears wide open when locals warned us of bears-–"Oh yeah, some get to be ten feet tall. You're afraid of ‘em, eh?"–-I was far more concerned with mosquitoes. For some reason, I had always assumed that these pestiferous insects were limited to the hotter climates, of say, everything south of Canada. Not so. Indeed, the further north we went the more we were plagued by them...and the larger they grew. Some seemed as big as bats. At nights, we were forced to roll up the windows to keep from being drained dry of blood by the time morning came. Nevertheless, we could hear the high-pitched hum of the devils as they followed the warm blood-scent through the car's air vents. Fishing became almost impossible. No sooner would I plant myself beside a stream and try to cast the lure than I would be assailed by scores of the blood-sucking vampires. I once was compelled to actually dive into a creek head first when one attack became more vicious than normal. As a consequence, we ate less and less fresh fish.

Somewhere deep in the Yukon, the Corvair suddenly started coughing and sputtering. Spotting a place to pull over, I finally rolled to a stop. No matter what we amateur mechanics tried, the engine would not fire up again. Gene and I finally jumped back in the car, rolled up the windows, killed mosquitoes, and pondered our next move. A small stream flowed nearby and I could see the sign on the bridge. Appropriately, it was called "Deadman's Creek."

After drawing straws, Gene set off back the way we had come. Somewhere fifty or a hundred miles to the south we both remembered a garage. With mosquitoes and bears waiting just beyond the car to pounce, there was little for me to do while my friend was gone but read, sleep and wait. I do recall that at 11 PM that night I was startled to realize that I was still scanning the newspaper. In fact, at midnight it was light enough to see.

Sometime that next day, Gene showed up with a tow truck. After the car was hauled back to the garage, we learned that the gas line had become crimped; a common problem on the rocky Alaskan Highway, noted the mechanic. When the car was finally fixed, we drove away, minus nearly every cent that we had. With Alaska still hundreds of miles away, we abandoned our long-cherished goal on the spot and turned south. By the time we reentered British Columbia, not only were we starving, but the Corvair was down to its last tank of gas.

Although I once again pulled out my spin rod, the clouds of mosquitoes were so relentless that I was forced to flee without a fish (apparently the winged vampires had not dined since last they dined on me). Gene and I both recalled stopping at a small log store along the Peace River and both remembered how nice an old German lady had been to us. Hence, when the store was spotted again, we pulled over and asked for a job. Although she did not have nearly enough money to hire even one incompetent teenager, much less two, the sweet old woman did give us a sack of pastries instead. Next to the cherries a man in New Mexico gave me when I was hitchhiking earlier that summer, this may have been the second-best food I've eaten in all my life.

Thirty miles north of Dawson Creek and down to our last gasp of gas, we pulled up at a clearing where lots of men were at work, judging by the trucks. Walking to a house, we were greeted at the door by an enormous fellow who walked on a wooden leg. He looked big and mean and all that was missing from the picture was a patch over his eye. He was still chewing part of his lunch. His name was Glen Powers.

"How do you do, sir," Gene wisely smiled in his best Eddie Haskell. "My friend and I was wondering if you had any jobs open?"

"Well, that depends," said the huge, dark-haired man as he stared down at us. "Either of you know how to handle a cat?"

Under normal circumstances the answer would have been two quick affirmatives; I once had a big furry tom that I loved dearly and Gene had seen enough of them to know how to pick one up and pet it. But since we both could see and hear huge yellow Caterpillar tractors in the distance bulldozing trees, we not only knew what Powers meant but knew we were out of luck.

Returning to the car disheartened, Gene and I discussed our options: A) Stay in the car and starve, or B) hitchhike until we found food and work. Choosing from category "B," we actually did go out on the Alaskan Highway and stick out our thumbs. But after walking a mile or more it was very apparent that we were never going to get a ride on a road with so little traffic. As fortune would have it, a tractor passing on the opposite direction gave us our only lift, and this back to where we had started.

Just after reaching the car, we noticed two guys about our age walking away from the ranch. From where we stood, they both looked PO'd. Without any ceremony we quickly strode to the back of the house and discovered that the two had just quit in anger. And so, less than five minutes after getting off the tractor, Powers had us in a hole digging a ditch. At one dollar an hour, plus room and board, we were wage-earners again.

"Flunkies" best describes our positions on this soon-to-be cattle ranch–-hauling brush, painting sheds, cleaning mud from the tracks of the Caterpillars that tore down the forest, doing anything and everything that anyone said for everyone seemed to be our boss. At a dollar an hour (about 80 cents, Canadian), I suppose we were paid according to our abilities. When we were loafing (which took up about half of our normal day), Gene and I were always on the look out for Powers, as was every other loafer on the spread. He had caught the two of us one afternoon playing X's and O's on the side of a shed with our brushes instead of painting it as ordered and his thundering wrath was fearful. Powers' little boy also loved to hang around us. He was a cute kid of seven or so and built like a tiny bull. When Gene had good-naturedly started wrestling with the boy one sunny day, very quickly the scrawny eighteen-year-old found himself pinned beneath the husky seven-year-old. Although Gene continued to laugh and play and act as if it were part of the script, it was very evident that he could not get up until the child got off. The boy probably outweighed Gene by ten pounds.

One day while we were piling brush, Gene managed to get a small tree over his head prior to tossing it onto the heap. The tree was not much bigger around than my arm. Perhaps Gene was exhausted. Perhaps Gene had underestimated the tree's weight. Perhaps Gene was just weak and puny. Whatever, when he tried to hurl it, his arms gave out completely and the tree came down square on his back, pinning him to the ground. I ran over and managed to get the tree off (actually, I just lifted it with my foot), but Gene was clearly in some pain. For the next three days he laid in our tiny cabin recovering.

Before we had left Kansas in May, my Mom had given us twenty stamped postcards to insure that we would write. Gene now took this opportunity during his convalescence to send his first words home.

Dear Mom and Dad,
We are working in Canada. It is a ranch. We are doing OK so far. Yesterday a tree fell on me. My back feels broken. I am in bed today. Hope you OK. Love, Gene.


As I learned later, at almost the same time that Gene's parents were receiving that postcard, my parents received this:

Dear Mom and Dad,
Well, I'm now stuck here on Deadman's creek. It is in the Yukon. The car broke down yesterday. Gene is gone trying to get help. We are almost out of money. Don't worry. Love, Mike


My Mom, of course, did worry. In fact, the woman was almost frantic when she got this, my first card. She called Gene's mom and she was frantic as well. Each could envision us both dead. In her mind, Mrs. Miller naturally imagined a giant red wood crashing to earth and crushing her son. And Mrs. Goodrich, already crazed and sleepless when she had learned from Aunt Marge that I had been hitchhiking, could all too easily see in her nightmares my bleached bones along someplace called Deadman's Creek. Dad attempted to throw some common sense into the mix when he burst out at the sobbing woman: "Why hell, he has to be alive! God damn it Evelyn, he wrote and sent the card, didn't he?"

After a month on the job, Gene and I decided to collect our wages and walk. Old man Powers was an awesome figure. One leg or not, had he chiseled us there was not one legal or physical thing we could have done about it. But in the end, the big boss paid us every cent we were worth, and then some. With our new found wealth, we headed south.

Perhaps we ate too many doughnuts each pre-noon, or too many fiesta sundaes each afternoon, but whatever the drain, by the time we arrived in Sheridan, Wyoming, we were again reaching for the bottom of our financial barrel. On the day before, we had pulled up briefly in Cody and picked out a few presents for our folks. We also bought cowboy hats for ourselves. This spending spree certainly did nothing to help our money situation but the boost to our egos after purchasing the hats was miraculous. With our new cowboy hats-–the first either of us had ever owned--we suddenly felt ten feet tall; felt that we were now destined to be more in life than ditch diggers or cherry pickers; felt that we were cut out to be cow hands and live a life on the open range.

Soon after reaching Sheridan, Gene and I proceeded posthaste to the unemployment agency and asked for work riding fence lines. As we sat there at the desk in our cowboy hats, I'm not sure how the good man kept a straight face, but let it be said, he did. When he asked if we had our own horses, we had to admit that no, we did not. When he asked if we had our own saddles, we again confessed that we had none. Tack? Gene and I could only look at one another blankly. When we walked out of the office after our record-setting "interview," it had never occurred to either us that ranches wouldn't have horses and saddles ready and waiting for two willing-to-work cow hands like ourselves. More confused than depressed, we got back in the car.

As we drove down the highway southeast from Sheridan–-me in my cowboy hat, watching the road; Gene in his cowboy hat, smoking and crooning a Sinatra song--I began to see signs that potential employment was just ahead. Along the valley floor, ranchers were beginning to bale their hay. What "tacks" and cowboys had in common, I didn't have a clue, but here was something I understood. Back in Kansas during the previous summers, I had probably put up enough hay bales to stretch to Borneo and back. It was hard, hot work and the going rate was two cents a bale. But if one had a strong back, a weak mind, and a capacity to suffer, one would not go hungry. Gene, the "city" boy from Lawrence, had never put up a bale in his life; like everything else about him though, he was willing to try. As we moved down the narrow valley, I kept my eye open for any field with lots of "dead soldiers" laying about.

(continued tomorrow)