Keys to Freeze, Mile 7215: What It Means to Be an Alaskan

Past dozens of rusting buses, trucks and cars, there’s a two-room house where a heartfelt handyman and his pet White Fang share road-kill sausage and local lore with weary travelers.

I awake to the sound of White Fang howling. It’s five a.m., and the sled dog is hiding in the fireweed. I rise from my bed in the front of an ’84 Denali bus, shoving off old and heavy covers, and make my way past the refrigerator and stove to look for whatever White Fang is barking at. Here in Tok, Alaska, it could be anything: moose, caribou, reindeer or bear.

I see White Fang through the window, standing on her shed in the pale light, and the fireweed about her glistening purple in the wet dew. Her body points east to the back of the complex, where the rusting hulks of 37 cars and trucks, five motorcycles, another Denali bus, and one airplane sit.

At the northern edge of the property sleeps our host, Carroll Johnson. He’s likely tucked away in his two-room wooden home, unaffected by White Fang’s yowling. Johnson’s garage, now closed to keep the mosquitoes out of the home, is littered with tools that would soon be used to fix one of his motorcycles. But that will be after he makes Keys to Freeze a breakfast of eggs and caribou road-kill sausage, over which he will reveal more stories about his time as an industrial arts teacher, an engine mechanic, and a successful dog sled racer.

He’ll tell us what it means to be an Alaskan.

* * *

Keys to Freeze was 1,000 miles from our destination of Deadhorse, Alaska. After five months on the road we had arrived in Tok and were staying with Johnson – a Couchsurfing.com host – for a night before pressing north to Fairbanks.

When we arrived at Johnson’s he was working on a Kawasaki motorcycle. Parts populated the ground outside his workshop. Johnson was covered in grease up to his elbow. His overalls were well-worn and stained. A red felt hat sat askance on his head, hiding his short black and graying hair. He is tall and thin, a man in his mid-fifties who has aged well.

White Fang at attention as Johnson prepares her for bikejoring with Tyler.<span class="_Credit">Meredith Meeks</span>
White Fang at attention as Johnson prepares her for bikejoring with Tyler.Meredith Meeks

He looked up from his work, squinted at us, and said “You must be the bikers!” He stood, wiped grease off his hands, and shook ours.

Johnson showed us around his property, this complex filled with equipment. As he described his home I thought Johnson was a man who liked to fix things, and help people. It was reflected in his do-it-yourself attitude and by the way he opened his home to the Keys to Freeze team.

Johnson is not a native Alaskan. His family is from Pennsylvania, and he moved to Alaska in 1986 to work a seasonal job in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, just south of Tok. From there he moved north to Denali National Park to work as a mechanic on the park’s shuttle buses. He didn’t expect to stay in Alaska after Denali, but, in a story that we’d heard many times, the north just kept him. Johnson fell in love with the state and the people who populate it.

A view of Johnson’s property and the 1984 Denali bus that began his collection of buses, cars, trucks, boats, and plane.<span class="_Credit">Meredith Meeks</span>
A view of Johnson’s property and the 1984 Denali bus that began his collection of buses, cars, trucks, boats, and plane.Meredith Meeks

After Denali, Johnson went south to Tok, buying two $400 Denali Park buses before he left, and purchasing some property upon his arrival. He shuttled the buses down and began his Alaskan life. The move to this highway town made sense. To the east lies Anchorage; to the north is Fairbanks. Tok is a resting place for both weary motorists and vehicles, so there’s a need for skilled laborers.

“It’s easy to get a job in Tok,” Johnson says. His voice is scratchy and resonate. It is the sound of wind along sandpaper, of long years in a harsh climate. “All you have to do is be willing to work.”

Teaching industrial arts at vocational schools enabled Johnson to travel all over Alaska – from the North Slopes, where in the winter the sun doesn’t rise and the temperature hovers at -40 degrees Fahrenheit, to the farthest west islands of the Aleutians, which are almost as close to Japan as Anchorage.

Later Johnson opened a car garage – Big Johnson Repairs – and settled into the Tok life. For two decades he worked Big Johnson Repairs, taught industrial arts, and became a dog sled racer.

Keeping a kennel of eight-to-twelve dogs in the winters, Johnson balanced his time as a mechanic and a dog sled racer. But with his traveling teaching contracts, Johnson was unable to maintain a full kennel. White Fang is the only dog Johnson kept from his past racing team.

Semi-organized chaos is the modus operandi in Johnson’s backyard.<span class="_Credit">Reese Wells</span>
Semi-organized chaos is the modus operandi in Johnson’s backyard.Reese Wells

“We share a special bond,” says Johnson. “She’s an incredible dog.”

Over the years his property filled with old cars and trucks, keeping his two buses company. His home experienced similar accumulation. In his kitchen-bedroom-dining room hung certificates marking his teaching pedigree and trophies from his success as a dog racer. His garage filled with tools and years of old grease. His woodshed spilled over with wood in the summers and dwindled to empty by the following spring. Metal and truck tires and building supplies collected and collapsed into the yard as weeds grew and bloomed around them. The cars and trucks sat, waiting until they were needed for parts.

It took time, but Carroll Johnson became the handyman of Tok.

* * *

“Oh yeah, it’s incredible,” he says, over and over again at breakfast that morning, referencing a variety of subjects ranging from the subtle smoky flavors of his roadkill caribou sausage to the simplicity of a BMW motorcycle engine versus that of a Kawasaki.

“It’s incredible how easy it is to get picked up hitchhiking in Alaska,” says Johnson. “Any Alaskan will pick you up. Tourists, they’re too…” he shakes his hand and frowns, “…scared or whatever.”

White Fang waits to be petted while atop her shed. All around, the fireweed is in bloom.<span class="_Credit">Reese Wells</span>
White Fang waits to be petted while atop her shed. All around, the fireweed is in bloom.Reese Wells

Johnson doesn’t have a problem with hitchhikers. He views them as an opportunity to talk and share stories. “I pick up hitchhikers all the time,” Johnson says. “They need some help. I usually pick one up on the road when I head back to Pennsylvania. You can meet some incredible people that way.”

He adds that anytime a traveler whose transportation means requires repairs, and they discover Tok, Johnson will do work on it for them. In return, Johnson just wants company and conversation. Often he will open up his home for a month at a time. They will sleep on his Denali bus, like we did, and work on his house in exchange for free rent and coffee.

“This one Taiwanese guy, Jackie Chen, incredible guy,” Johnson says, “stayed here for two weeks on his bicycle tour around the world.” He nods, eating a bite of the caribou. “Incredible discipline,” he says of Chen. “Up early every day, learned how to make a French press coffee, and painted my home while he was here.”

Johnson opened a Couchsurfing.com account in 2012, and word of his hospitality spread. That was how Keys to Freeze connected with him.

“Couchsurfing,” says Johnson. “I just love it. You get to meet so many people that way.”

As we sit inside eating and sharing stories from the road I look around Johnson’s home. His walls, covered in memorabilia. His cabinets, spilling over with papers and memories. His garage, the floor covered in parts and tools and grease. His yard, filled with cars and trucks and buses and boats and an airplane. A husky in the center of the property, excited to be alive amidst the fireweed, waiting among the grasses for her next run.

Johnson shows off his new truck shed, which he built to carry a motorcycle westward during his next teaching assignment.<span class="_Credit">Meredith Meeks</span>
Johnson shows off his new truck shed, which he built to carry a motorcycle westward during his next teaching assignment.Meredith Meeks

And here this man, standing in front of us with his plate of roadkill caribou sausage, a red felt hat tilted atop his head. I realize something then, listening to him talk about one of his stranger guests who was attempting to walk around the world: Johnson’s home parallels his life. He collects bits and stories and saves them for future use. He is a handyman by both trade and host. Johnson survives the harsh Alaskan way of life by holding onto anything that might be of use. He is, after 29 years in the far north, an Alaskan happy to be alive and sharing company with travelers on a warm and sunny summer day. This is a man who practices what he preaches.

We finish our breakfast and leave that morning in the sunlight, pedaling down a gravel road that will lead us back to the highway. Johnson is already working on his Kawasaki motorcycle engine, preparing it for another teaching job out west.

White Fang watches us leave from the fireweed, I am struck by a memory from the previous night: It is midnight; perpetual dusk has fallen over Tok. We are in the Denali bus, presuming that Johnson is preparing for bed.

But from the road comes a bark and a flash of black. White Fang. Then Johnson bikes past. He waves and yells. “HEY-OH! HIKE HIKE HIKE!” A rope is connected to his bicycle, White Fang at the rope’s end. She is pulling Johnson down the road in a popular Alaskan sport called bikejoring, a dryland mushing activity developed from dogsled racing. White Fang is ecstatic to be running.

We rush outside and take turns bikejoring with the husky. Johnson stands back, grinning at our excitement — this is something none of his guests have ever done before.

Johnson’s back at it, and I laugh as White Fang races up and down the gravel road, tongue out, lips curled up into a smile, waiting for the coming winter.

* * *

Reese Wells is a writer and adventure cyclist from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is a co-founder of Keys to Freeze and is excited to continue sharing stories from the road. reesewells.com

Read more Keys to Freeze adventures on Narratively as our daring cyclist friends make their way from the Florida Keys to Deadhorse, Alaska.