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  • Route 7 Review

Swimming With Aurora by Iver Arnegard

Iver Arnegard has published nonfiction, fiction, and poetry in the North American Review, River Teeth, the Missouri Review, and elsewhere. His book, Whip & Spur, was published by Gold Line Press after winning their fiction contest. He currently lives in a remote cabin and teaches Creative Writing at the University of Alaska Mat-Su campus.

Swimming With Aurora

Everyone just wants to be understood.

And you can't understand someone without listening, which a lot of people never

do. Or they pretend to while they wait for their turn to talk. For twenty years I've hitched

all over North America, from Alaska to New Mexico—most states and provinces in

between. I’ve learned a lot in that time and it’s turned me into a listener.

When hitch-hiking there are certain rules to follow:

Always make eye contact, for one thing. And always smile. Not a huge shit-eating

grin like you just swallowed a bottle of crazy pills. But a normal smile. You know what I


Always keep moving. Not so much for the psychology of it—a hiker looks less

destitute or unpredictable than someone standing still or stuck somewhere—but because

it’s nice to walk. Good exercise. And far less mundane than standing in the same spot.

Always have everything you need with you. Tent, sleeping bag, food. I've had

drivers tell me that's why they picked me up. The fact that I'm a backpacker somehow

makes me less likely to be a serial killer, I guess. Once I was stranded at a gas station

with a heavy duffel bag. I couldn’t carry it on my back or keep moving. And it took

forever to get a ride. All day. The longest I've ever had to wait.

Stranded equals desperate which could also equal dangerous.

There are other rules, I’m sure. Ones I’m forgetting now or don’t even

consciously follow myself. But, really, at the end of the day, hitch-hiking is mostly about

listening. And that’s why people pick me up. Whether they realize it or not, they just

want someone to talk to. Someone to listen. And maybe even understand them. I’ve been

in cars and trucks with drivers as long as ten hours before and often times they never

even ask where I’m from or what I do for a living. Or anything about me. And it’s not

that they’re that self-absorbed. Necessarily. Though sometimes they are. But it’s usually

that they just want to be heard.

My average wait in a place like Alaska is probably twenty to thirty minutes.

Rarely longer. (Although when I'm on a remote highway like the Dalton it might take as

long as three or four hours. But I just keep moving. It doesn’t bother me to walk

indefinitely in a beautiful place.) I've talked to hitch-hikers who've been stranded all day,

sometimes for days on end, and I can't understand it. I'm guessing they don't smile.

Maybe they don't even face oncoming traffic or bother to make eye contact. Maybe they

look pissed off or have no backpack.

Or they're just not as lucky as me.

I've had hundreds of rides over the last two decades. Maybe a thousand at this

point. And I have never really felt threatened. Only been weirded out two or three times.

Otherwise, my drivers have all been incredibly kind, generous, and interesting people.

Some of whom I’m still in touch with.

Each one’s different. The people who pick me up hitching. But they all fall into

five categories:

One: The Good Samaritan. Who see it as his or her duty, or privilege, to help

anyone in need. They’re amazing people. And usually really interesting to talk to. At

times, Good Samaritans have tried to convert me to their religion. Other times they don’t

push an agenda at all.

Two. Teenagers looking for drugs. It usually takes them a while to get the guts to

come out and ask me for some. And it’s always the same. Since I never have any I tell

them, No. But good luck.

Three—Braggarts. Guys who see it as a badge of courage to pick up a hitch-hiker.

They might be going to meet friends somewhere. And showing up with a hitch-hiker

makes them look cool. Or so they think. One guy was talking to his girlfriend on his cell

phone when he picked me up. He kept right on talking to her, even after I got in his truck.

Telling her I seemed dangerous. Which is hilarious. I could hear her on the other line

worrying over him. Saying he should be careful and come home to her immediately.

Category four? Other hitch-hikers. People who have been there themselves. And

know what it’s like to stick their thumbs out on the side of a road. They’re usually the

best kind of ride. And luckily one of the largest fractions, or demographics, of drivers I

encounter. They’re the most comfortable rides I get. And usually the most authentic kind

of people I meet.

And finally, the lonely ones...

The fifth category. Those who might be at the end of their ropes and don’t care at

all about the risks of picking up hitch-hikers. The same drivers who have told me of their

incurable, terminal illnesses. Their children who have died. The great loves they’ve lost.

And what I’ve learned is the best thing I can do is to just listen. Which applies to every

kind of driver who picks me up. But mostly this final category. The kinds of people who

are usually completely alone in the world and have no one to listen to them. I feel good

about these sorts of rides. Like I’m actually helping them out as much, if not more, than

they’re helping me. To be heard. And understood. It’s all I really want, too. And it would

only take one person.

Twenty years. Wow. Lots of rides. Lots of stories.

There was the gold-panner. Outside Whitehorse. Who steered his rusty Chevy to

the side of the Alcan at dawn and handed me a bottle of whiskey before I could even say,

Thanks for stopping.

The empty tour bus dead-heading back to Skagway. Just me and the driver

swapping stories all night. Under a sky swimming with aurora. Shimmering with greens,

reds, and purples dancing above the Mentasta Mountains.

And Leroy. The Athabaskan man who picked me up in Paxson and drove me all

the way to the turn off to Manley.

“Thanks for the ride. Just hiked out of those mountains.”

“Some people,” he said, scratching the stubble on his chin as he glanced back at

the peaks. “Dey get loss der.”

I paused and nodded. “Where are you headed?” I said.

“Minto. To fish camp. Whole family coming this year. Gonna we have big fun.”

We stopped in every village along the way so Leroy could say hi to one cousin or

another. An aunt or uncle. Finally, north of Livengood, he pulled over to the side of the


“Thanks for the ride,” I said.


I yanked up on the old, rusted handle and nudged the door open with my shoulder.

“Your language,” he said to me in English as I stepped out of his truck. “Is it hard

to speak?”

Middle of August now and northern latitudes are tilting away from the sun. Back

toward the long night of an Alaskan winter. There’s still a full month before the equinox

but for the first time I’m actually using my headlamp after midnight. It's not just dusk.

Not an extended twilight. But real darkness. Even if only for a couple of hours. Still, it's

noticeable. Palpable. But it also means the northern lights will be more and more visible

again. I’ve already seen them once, a week ago. Outside my tent just north of Hope.

Somewhere above tree line on Resurrection Trail.

And now here I am, on the side of the Parks Highway, hitching north to

Talkeetna. Passed the Turnagain Arm, the Chugach Mountains, and Palmer Hay Flats. I

wonder who will pick me up today. Someone who wants to be heard, I’m sure. Whether

they realize it or not.

It’s true. Everyone just wants to be understood. I do, too. One person. And that

would be the end of the line. Just one. Who says, I hear you. I’m listening.


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