Driving down The Rich past Delta, I spotted someone sitting on a backpack down in the ditch. I stopped, and looked in the mirror to see someone standing up in the weeds alongside the highway, lifting a pack to his back. I reversed down the road and rolled down the window.
“Where are you headed?” I asked.
“Paxson? Who goes to Paxson?”
“Me. You go to Paxson?”
“Well, I’m going by Paxson.”
I pulled back the tonneau cover, and he tossed in his backpack. “I’m European,” he says to me. I had to laugh at that. One word out of his mouth, and I knew he was from Europe. Was he afraid I’d confuse him as Inuit?
Turned out he’s from Romania, Transylvania, to be exact. “You have heard of Transylvania? Dracula?” I assured him that I had, indeed, heard of Transylvania & Dracula. After a summer of working in a cannery on the Kenai, Vlad, of course his name was Vlad, had been hitching, hiking and camping around Alaska for the past three weeks. Another Romanian, who had worked in the cannery had joined Vlad camping in Denali, but he lasted only one day camping. “It was too cold for him, so we parted ways. Sometimes it is best to travel alone,” he told me. Yeah, I know how that works.
He just peppered me with questions about Alaska, and for the most part his questions were not the usual ones. He even asked me a couple that I had never been asked before, which doesn’t happen very often. I kept trying to ask about Romania, and he answered all my questions, but he clearly had very little interest in talking about his home. Then Vlad asks, “Do you know where the library is in Paxson?” I was convinced that I had misunderstood him, so I asked him to repeat the question. “Library. You know… books?” I don’t think I’ve ever so much as seen two books together in Paxson, let alone a library.
One of the many things that people don’t quite get about Alaska, is that a dot on a map with a name next to it does not mean that the dot represents an actual town. Paxson is simply the junction of two highways. There is a lodge and a gas station, “But no library,” I said. “Paxson is very small.” In the end, all Vlad wanted was an internet connection so that he could reserve his flight out of Anchorage. His plan was to hitch for 50 or so miles, then hike and camp a bit, then hitch another 50 or so miles. I have to admit, I liked the plan, so I suggested he ask to use the computer in the lodge. I figured that they had to have one.
Just before Summit, I spotted two caribou and pointed them out. Vlad missed them. Then there were three more, and I pointed them out too. “No, my side of the truck,” I said. Well, Vlad missed those as well, and he gave me a look that clearly said that he thought I was jerking his chain.
“We’ll see more,” I said. He obviously did not believe me. So I added: “Trust me.”
It was about this time that I realized, that as a defacto tour guide, I should probably slow down when I see a caribou instead of zipping by them at 70 mph like I had been. Sure enough, a mile or so further down the road there were three more caribou about 40 yards off the highway. I slowed down to a stop and pointed them out. One was a nice bull, and Vlad took a couple of pictures. Then, as we were both looking on, Vlad let out a very audible gasp. Suddenly there were 25-30 caribou standing out there in the tundra. I have no idea where they came from; they were just there. The Transylvanian was convinced that they had simply stood up, which is certainly possible. But I think the terrain was so broken up out there, that we didn’t see the small herd until they walked out in the open. Either way, it was pretty cool. When I eventually drove off, Vlad said, “OK, I trust you now.”
Damn right, Count.
When we drove up to a couple of buildings standing next to each other, I announce our arrival to Paxson. “Ooookaaay. I see,” Vlad says. “Paxson is very small.”