Cool Hand Chris
I met Chris early on in my travels through Alaska (August 4th). I was driving Highway 2 towards Tok when I came to a section of alternating one-way traffic for some road construction up ahead. Chris was manning the Stop/Slow sign, and during my ~12 minute wait we got to talking.
He had the beard of a 60 year old and the body language of a young person. I’d put his actual age near 35, but I’m really just taking the average of disparate data. His eyes beamed with enthusiasm – crystal blue grey, and they cut like tempered charisma. His sunglasses sat like a crown on top of his head, and they did their best to corral his scratchy short hair.
He explained that his crew worked the road between Tok and the US/Canadian border. In the summer they patch roads and level out frost heaves, and in the winter they plow snow. He echoed the story of a warm dry winter that I’ve heard since North Dakota. I offered him sunscreen but he declined, explaining that he already had bug goop on. He kept cans of pop underneath roadside moss to keep them cold until lunch break. I asked about the trees, and he identified the scraggly stunted variety as Black Spruce and their larger, more attractively shaped cousin, White Spruce. (I learned later that the Black Spruce get their misshapen spindly posture from their insistence on growing above areas of aggressive permafrost). Specific varieties of Birch and Aspen are present too, but they’re quarantined to more favorable growing conditions.
This knowledge of trees, he proudly admitted, was gained during a 17 year career as a forest fireman. Spruce cary a lot of dead branch material below the productive green branches. They are skinny and pack dense together, creating perfect conditions for vast and sweeping forest fires. That, combined with the poor road access to the deep woods can make it next to impossible to gain control of blaze. “Out here we’re really fire herders..”
We had more to talk about, but the pilot car had returned, and it was my turn to drive. As he walked back to his post at the front of our line I leaned out my window and asked for his name. He turned on his heal, angled a set of fingers from the corner of his mouth, and shouted his full name while backpedalling.
When my line started rolling he leaned forward on his Stop/Slow sign and extended an unmoving palm out towards me. I exchanged a casual salute for his authentic “Have a good day, man.”
Nothing like nice for no reason, I always say.