Tom Walker has his fair share of stories, including tales he’s heard picking up hitchhikers on the Alaska Highway. This famous Alaska Highway stop is the Watson Lake signpost forest in Yukon, Canada. Photo by Tom Walker.
Fourteen times I’ve driven the Alaska Highway. Even though the road itself has improved dramatically over the years, winter weather always makes the drive a challenge. There’s the snow, the ice, the cold, and vast distances between services. In summer it adds lumbering motor homes and construction projects. At Liard Hot Springs, I once saw this graffiti scratched on a wall: “Driving the Alaska Highway is hours and hours of boredom, interspersed with seconds of sheer terror.”
The road today is paved, with long straight stretches carved through the boreal forest, and except for the scarcity of services, no different than driving rural roads in the West. Although each season poses its own challenges, the Alaska Highway has its compensations: northern lights swaying on the peaks, caribou, bison, and Stone sheep grazing by the road, and rarely coyotes or foxes stalking the edges. I’ve seen black bears, even grizzlies, and once a wolverine. The scenery is always astounding.
And it has hitchhikers, too. In the early years, to break the monotony, I picked them up. Due to the distances, whoever you picked up might be with you for hours, if not days.
In the spring of 1969, I headed north in my pickup pulling two horses in a stock trailer. It would take five days of dust, flying gravel, potholes, and hazardous curves to reach Alaska.
At Burwash Landing, Yukon Territory, a man walked up while I was fueling the truck and asked for a ride 50 miles north to his cabin. He looked to be Athabascan, about 60, five-foot-six inches tall, and with a slight build. He wore a beat-up black cowboy hat, jeans, jean jacket, and western boots. I was dressed much the same. “No problem,” I said, “glad for the company.”
He stacked two cardboard boxes of groceries between the bales of hay in the bed of the pickup. As he helped me with the horses, he said his name was Johnny and that he had been born on the shores of Kluane Lake, “long time before the highway.”
On the slow, bumpy drive north, Johnny told me that he’d worked construction, been a trapper, and done a little cooking in a mining camp. He was working then as a guide and had hunted all over the Yukon Territory. As the miles slowly rattled away, Johnny told me about his life as a hunting guide. He said he liked hunting moose the best. “Ride the horses right up, load the meat on. No climbing like for sheep,” he explained.
His monologue of what he considered his hunters’ goofy behavior was good for about 20 miles of laughs. About 25 miles north of Burwash, we crossed a wooden bridge over a small creek. The sign read: “Swede Johnson Creek.”
“That’s named for me,” Johnny said.
I glanced at him in disbelief. “How so?” I asked.
“During the war I helped build the highway. Worked with civilians, soldiers, other Indians. This bridge was all whites, I was only Indian. One day at lunch I listened to the men talk. ‘I’m from Sweden,’ say one. ‘Me, too,’ say another one. ‘Hey, me, too,’ say another. They all turn out to be Swedes. Then one look at me and says, ‘Where you from Johnny?’ and they all laugh. ‘Me,’ I say, ‘I’m a Swede, too!’ That’s how come Swede Johnson Creek come to be named for an Indian from Kluane Lake.”
A few miles north of the creek, I pulled over where Johnny said he wanted out. I saw no cabin, road, or trail, just a stretch of highway and forest like anywhere else. Johnny unloaded his two boxes and balanced one on the other. He thanked me for the ride and headed west into the trees, and his cabin somewhere beyond.
The Archduke of Lithuania
A few hours later I stopped at White River Lodge to check on the horses. The effect of the heat, nearing 90°F, and dust had me worried about them, and they needed water. The stop also offered a respite from the constant jostling. When I climbed out of the trailer, I was greeted by a heavyset young man carrying an army fatigue jacket and G.I. duffel bag. I guessed that he was a recently discharged veteran, like me.
“Lookin’ for a ride north,” he said. “Got room?”
I explained I wasn’t going far, just across the border to Scotty Creek, but he said that would be fine. Because he dressed like a veteran, I didn’t hesitate and told him to stow his duffel in the truck and be ready to go in 20 minutes.
He was waiting in the truck when I came out of the lodge. We gave our names and shook hands. He said he was hitchhiking from California to Alaska where he hoped to find summer work in a cannery. My new passenger talked only about himself: what he liked to eat, drink, listen to on the radio. “Definitely not country music.” After a few miles, I gladly would have traded three of him for one Johnny. I tuned him out.
One comment broke through the haze: “…my fate has been to wander like this. I can’t stay in one place long. Just my misfortune is all, I guess.”
“What misfortune?” I asked, “Something happened to you in the service?”
My passenger fell silent; I looked over. He was staring at me, as if weighing a decision.
“Well, I guess I can trust you,” he said. “I never was in the military. I’m running away and hiding out.”
Thinking he was a draft dodger I began to bristle but before I could say anything he continued. “You see, I’ve been running away all my life, most recently from Los Angeles. You can’t tell anybody this, but I am the Archduke of Lithuania.”
“The duke of what?”
“Let me explain,” he said, “when the Communists took over my fatherland, my family, led by my father, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, escaped, taking the crown jewels with them. They are all dead now, and I’m the only one left. The heir apparent.” Again he paused, as if waiting for a comment. “I’ve locked the crown jewels in a safety deposit box in a Los Angeles bank,” he said. “The KGB is searching for me everywhere and have been since my father died. If they catch me, they’ll hold me for ransom. The jewels are worth millions.”
I wondered if everyone else was dead, who would pay the ransom, or would want to, for this bozo? I have forgotten most of the rest of his incredible story, but he did ask me to address him as Duke from then on, but never in public. “It might draw dangerous attention,” he explained.
When we finally stopped in Beaver Creek for the pie that made a cafe there famous, the Duke was ready to eat. Even before we stopped, I heard his ample stomach growling. On the cafe steps, the Duke touched my arm and said, “By the way, I’m out of cash but expect a wire transfer in Anchorage when I get there. Can I borrow five bucks?”
The last time I saw the Duke he was standing by the side of the road, thumb high in the air.