Editor’s note: In a big red van he would dub Falcor, named after the wide-roaming luckdragon in "The Neverending Story," former Army Ranger-turned-author Leo Jenkins launched a 20-month, 32,000-mile odyssey across eight states and nine countries. His journey — which continues, albeit aboard a new steed just purchased in May — began in Anchorage, Alaska. The most recent of his three books, "First Train Out of Denver," was written during those travels. In an exclusive excerpt, here’s where Jenkins' journey with Falcor begins:
I message the seller of the Dodge van before the sun rises the next morning, meet with him and purchase my new home for $5,000 cash, exactly twenty-three hours after landing in Alaska. This act shifts not only my living condition, but, my life condition. I’ve been eastbound once around the spinning blue ball. I’ve been, for the most part alone in my experience.
The dawn of a new direction beams through my windshield. A strong southern pull draws me to a new series of human interactions and irrevocable growth. A gravitational shift of polarity tilts my world from its current spin, southward. My world maintains its status as a shiny round metal object in the pinball machine of life.
The vibrant beams of golden sun piercing the windshield slowly give way to an angry, spitting cloud. The sheer majesty of the Alaskan landscape is so altogether captivating that I nearly miss the young man standing at the first intersection I roll through in over an hour. In the universal, ‘can I get a ride’ gesture, the lanky hitchhiker displays his thumb beacon in hopes of landing a lift.
“Thank you so much,” he exclaims with a heavy eastern European accent through a wide-face grin.
“Yeah, no worries bud. Where are you heading?”
“I go to marker 146.”
“I’m not sure what that means.”
“It’s this way. On this road. You just keep going. Where are you going to?”
“This is a cool van.”
“Thank you! I just bought it today.” Over the next hour we get familiar with one another’s backstory.
Ivan is only twenty years old but has tried to become an American citizen for the past two years. He grew up in the draconian Belarusian regime. His enthusiasm for traveling and life is palpable in every word he utters. He didn’t grow up with the same freedom of movement that so many in the U.S. take for granted. He cherishes every minute he spends in the United States, but desires to see the entire world. After explaining to him where I’ve been and where I hope to go, Ivan becomes, quite possibly, more excited for my adventure than even I am. “Ohh boy!” he repeats in a thick Russian accent.
Driving forty miles past where I intended on stopping for the evening, I drop Ivan at the front door of the camp where he lives. A few miles earlier, we passed by an amazing raging river, lined with giant boulders. Redirecting 180 degrees, I set out determined to have the first morning in my new home be as scenic as possible. I now have a malleable front porch view, one fully equipped with the autonomy to change to fit my desire. Through the pitch-black Alaskan darkness I strain my eyes searching for the half-hidden turnoff. The oversized tires find dirt for the first time under my ownership and I slowly pull the red beast to a halt, unsure if the earth will drop off into the audibly raging river below.
The cornucopia of shining skyward diamonds illuminates a new- found utopia in my heart. The vastness, the incomprehensible vastness of that night sky, untainted by the fluorescent flicker of man’s bastardized contribution to light, explodes with greater tenacity, grace and endless shimmer than the totality of all the world’s fireworks. Never has a sleep occurred so sound.
The crack of first light crests the glacier feeding my liquid stereo. Eyes flutter awake to a new world of possibility and endless potential. Without the constraints of deadline, I reach slowly for the book sitting open next to my bed. The brisk night air left a thin layer of ice crystals on the interior window, making the grey fleece blanket all the more enjoyable.
I break free momentarily from my swaddle to fire up one of the two gas-powered burners, which make up the bulk of my kitchen. Along with the small camping grill, I purchased a cast iron skillet, one pot, a pair of red bowls and plates, two forks, knives and spoons, a percolator, a can opener, a spatula and one very necessary blue tin coffee cup. A meager set of belongings by the account of most of my peers. However, the ability to roll out of bed and make myself coffee has me feeling like royalty.
The heat radiating off my new blue tin cup warms my hands as I sit on a large stone admiring my new front yard. The boulders to my right scream for me to come climb them in the way a new piece of playground equipment yells to a young child through the window of their third period math class. I resist the urge to forego the utter serenity of the moment. The dopamine surge contracts my heart with ferocity. Perhaps, it’s the coffee.
I spend the morning giving in to my child-like tendencies and pulling on every rock in eyesight, then find rubber to road once more. With nowhere to go and a lifetime to get there, I hammer the pedal through some of the most heavenly terrain on earth. Four-hundred-and-fifty miles in a single day and across the first of many international border crossings to be made in the fifteen-year-old Dodge. The unique cutout, twenty meters wide, of the thickest coniferous skyscrapers I’ve ever seen marks the divide between another new country and my own. Yukon, Canada.
South. South. South. Something sucks me south. It’s impossible to explain. Despite falling quickly in love with my present surroundings, my desire to move through exceeds the will to indulge. South.
In under thirty-six hours I see a whitetail fox, two moose, a beluga whale and a very unimposing black bear. The cheap antenna struggles valiantly, but can’t seem to find a station. I haven’t seen another car, in either direction, for over an hour. The Yukon of Northern Canada is a world in and of itself. Despite the unique expansive wonderland of endless pines and unique wildlife, something of a magnetic pull draws me away. With all this recent movement, any stagnation, even for a day, feels uncomfortable.
The long stretches of silent road begin to take their toll on my psyche. To stay awake, I begin reciting the little bit of Shakespeare I know from heart. Hundreds of miles from where I dropped off the last hitchhiker, I see a thin man in a denim jacket walking along the empty road with a noticeable limp.
“You need a ride, bud?”
A sort of mumbled acceptance of the offer accompanies a slight nod of the head as the man of Native descent laboriously climbs into the cab of my van. My hopes for a little conversation in return for the ride gradually slip away. Sitting, rocking back and forth, clenching his silver coffee travel mug, muttering incoherently to himself. A half an hour into our time together he blurts out the question, “You ever pan for gold in Nevada?”
An exceptionally random, yet specific question, I think to myself. “Do the tables in Vegas count?” I respond with a chuckle. “Sorry, different kind of gold,” I continue in an effort to not come across as mocking the obviously troubled man.
“All kinds of gold,” he returns, “the world runs on gold. Money is evil, but we need it to keep the world moving. The gas in this van that picked me up was bought with money. Money makes the world turn. It’s evil, but it makes the world turn.”
After what is one of the most random, poignant, pragmatic statements I’ve heard in sometime, the man goes back to his incoherent ramblings, leaving me in a state of disbelief.
Another hour and a half of spastic dialog and excessive fidgeting from my travel mate and something in the steering starts to feel off. An out-of-place sound and minor vibration quickly transforms into a chaotic dissonance and a pungent-burning odor. The wheel in my hands violently fights against me as I attempt to keep the van straight. A brief glance to the rearview and I notice the rear tire decided to free itself from the steel rim. That sinking feeling grabs ahold of my stomach and pulls it south as I realize I never checked to see if the van had a spare tire.
We’re a hundred miles from nowhere and haven’t seen another vehicle moving in either direction for at least a half an hour. I remember my old Dodge pickup truck had a spare affixed to the undercarriage near the rear axle.
The breath returns to my lungs like surfacing from moments underwater as I discover that beautiful hunk of emergency rubber sleeping safely under the van. The minor inconvenience is a chance to get to know my passenger a little better. As I begin lifting the rear end with the jack, he removes the lug nuts and says, “It wasn’t far from here, no not far at all.”
“What wasn’t far from here?”
“Where it happened. The accident.”
“I was thrown from the car my cousin was driving. He was drunk.
"Flying too high. Hit the pole. Spent eleven months in a full body cast. Just got it off a couple of weeks ago. He’s dead.” The man lifts his shirt to show the miracles of modern medicine displayed by a series of impressive surgical scars. “That’s why I got to get to Whitehorse, got my follow-up doctor’s appointment this afternoon.”
“Holy shit! What if no one picked you up?”
“I would have had to walk.”
“But that’s over two-hundred miles and I don’t mean to sound like a mom here, but you’re in no condition to be walking two hundred meters, let alone miles!”
“Don’t have no choice. Don’t have no car and no hospital where I live.”
There’s no self-pity in his voice. No entitlement or blame exists either. It’s evident he is by far from being a man of means. He has little left in the world, but he is alive, a fact he seems truly grateful for.
For the remainder of the drive into the provincial capital I can’t help but be in awe of this man, I feel proud to know him, if only for a few hours.
Just shy of the hospital he points at a corner gas station, signaling for me to pull over. “Gotta get me my coffea. Love my coffea! Doctors tell me not to drink it, but I love me coffea!”
I want to hop out and buy it for him. I want to buy him a full meal and drive him the rest of the way to the hospital, but he refuses, just saying we made good time and he can make it from here. Still clenching his small dented thermos, he passes a sincere thank you and climbs out of the van. A testament to the spirit of human resilience.
A quick stop at a small tire shop brings to my attention the elevated cost of goods and services this far north. For someone on a fixed travelers income, paying twice as much for a spare tire is a hell of a kick, one that somehow, however, doesn’t sting as much as it should have. After a few hours with my last passenger, I’m exceedingly thankful for my ability to hop in and out of the big van without the inhibition of pain. I’m thankful that even though it isn’t in my budget, I have the resources available to replace the brand new tire, which shredded off the rim like the lid of a tin can when exposed to an electric can opener.
I am, more than anything, and above all else, thankful that in this moment I’m alive and I’m free. Free to move in any direction and at any pace my soul burns for; free to breathe as deeply, the same air whose crisp inertia has fed my well-being since the day of my birth, yet so often flowed without its due appreciation. I’m free to be the way in which we’re all free to be, every one of us, it’s just taken me this long to fully understand that it’s been my choice all along. A bird’s eye view is often necessary to beat life’s labyrinth. For now, I’m soaring.