A.J. was a rather interesting character – probably more of a con man than anything, but he was an employer and a means to making rent. We first met on a trail ride outside Healy, AK on a scorching mid-July afternoon. It was my job to make sure the rides were conducted in a safe but enjoyable manner, so I would occasionally hold back from leading the group and move to the rear of the single-file line. As a general precaution we kept novice riders near the front, and those suspected to be less prone to failure positioned near the rear. I found some fascinating folks at the tail end of these groups, perhaps suggesting their manner of confidence in riding a horse conveyed a bit more substance to the individual.
I was gregarious to a fault, which was ideal for the job. Technically we were billed as ‘horse wranglers’ but in truth it was a ruse to lure cruise company tourists into the tundra for a chance encounter with nature on horseback. We were essentially tundra tour leaders and the horses of course carried the burden. I absolutely loved meeting all those people from different parts of the country. I was 24 years old, embedded on a hiatus from anything that might advance my career, which at the time included car wash detailing; bar tending; table waiting; handy man, and now horse wrangler. The latest employ was a means to getting up to Alaska, which had been a dream of mine since I was a young boy.
A.J. was unique in the sense that he was visiting from Anchorage, and not Pennsylvania or Texas or South Carolina like the rest of the ‘Tourons’ we guided along the spongy trails. He was with his girlfriend and a young boy, not his son. He sported a mean Jheri Curl and a slouched posture that exuded confidence and a sly invitation to inquire what he was all about. He didn’t blend in with anyone, despite the predictable diversity of their origins. A.J. was a singular distraction that could be avoided or investigated by anyone willing to pay attention. His smirk was inviting rather than offending, and he possessed that rare quality of a conversant.
Fast forward a couple months and I found myself unemployed and homeless. I had just drawn the line with the ranch owners and been warned to vacate their property within the hour, or else. Legally they couldn’t fire my girlfriend but she poetically rejected their limp gesture to stay on board. The Subaru was once again overloaded and we had a choice of driving north or south from that terrible place of employ. Naturally we turned south knowing the impending winter would only get worse in Fairbanks. Anchorage seemed logical considering there were jobs and places to rent, although this should serve as a bit of foreshadowing that perhaps Fairbanks would have been a better gamble for the former criteria.
That first night we pulled into a roadside shanty and I tried to douse my furor with beer – one of the other wranglers was there, secretly reveling in my dismissal but playing coy enough to encourage my rants. It was cheap entertainment in a place that could feel suffocating despite the vast wilderness and lack of oversight that came with the territory. I have no idea what our parting words were, but I didn’t blame him for my ejection and I still hope he made out OK in life. At some point he drove back north to the ranch while I climbed into the back of our Subaru to await sobriety and a new plan. Alaska was great like that – you could camp virtually anywhere you wanted, so long as it wasn’t impeding road or rail traffic. My faithful dog, Bear was usually relegated to bedding down outside the car since there wasn’t much room left after two adults were stretched out inside. His rousing howl would keep anything at bay, and I bolted upright many nights to his suspicion of unwanted prowlers nearby. The area was thick with grizzlies, moose and some wolves, although we never really felt threatened by their presence. I encountered multiple moose and bears while fishing the local rivers, never once in a negative gambit. Still, car camping felt a lot safer than chucking a nylon tent over the ground.
The next morning began with a sense of urgency to get moving anywhere but there – we had ventured south once or twice in the few months since we’d come to Alaska but it was all new territory for the most part. Anchorage held promise that we could spend our winter here instead of turning tail for home in the lower 48 like most seasonal workers would do. There wasn’t much for us back in Seattle and we had only tasted some of the amazing wilds we had come to feast on. The basics needed to be met immediately so we set upon a copy of the Anchorage Daily News and flipped to the classifieds. Apartments were available for our budget, which wasn’t much. In our moment of desperation we picked the first place that had an opening near the center of town and agreed to meet the landlord that afternoon. It was during that drive into Anchorage I remembered my conversation with A.J. several weeks prior – he had offered me a job if I even needed it, but at the time it never dawned on me I’d be trying my hand at landscaping in Alaska. Now I needed a paycheck so I fished his business card from my journal. I rang him from a pay phone in Wasilla, wondering if he’d remember who I was. Thankfully he did and was quite receptive to my solicitation for employment. I could start the following Monday, take a few days to get settled. I was jubilant – we weren’t even to our new home yet and I already had a job.
The apartment was fine enough with two bedrooms and a single bathroom. We didn’t own any furniture so we paid a visit to the local Salvation Army and lugged home a console TV and a shit-brown couch that didn’t smell too bad. We purchased an air mattress and enough dishes from Walmart to make the kitchen feel functional. Then we went to work. My girlfriend immediately found employment as a personal trainer at the regional fitness giant and I began to learn of my new boss’s nefarious ways. A.J. gave me a work truck to use at my discretion, at 1 ton Chevy connected to a utility trailer that hauled his skid steer. A.J. had plenty of work lined up and I was quickly learning my way around town with a trailer in tow. My experience in operating heavy equipment was limited to farm tractors and implements we had used to reap our hay crop in Missouri. I was handed the keys to the skid steer without any hesitation and went to work sculpting a new yard for a mansion west of town. Amazingly I managed to move over a hundred yards of fill and topsoil onto that property despite never having operated a skid steer. It was a job well done until I managed to flip over a drainage ditch in the front yard, with the bucket fully extended, creating a whole different set of problems. The utility crew up the street wouldn’t dare lend a hand with their backhoe, and I was forced to face my new employer with the obvious news when he showed up to the job.
“Got yourself into a jam, huh?” he said as he slowly moved from the drivers seat of his truck, lighting a cigarette and tossing his strands of curls behind his shoulder – it was the kind of gesture you might expect from someone who discovered you in a desperate plight but wanted to savor the moment before providing a solution. You’d expect most bosses to be livid at the scene, but A.J. was almost expecting it. Hydraulic fluid dripped from the floorboards and side panels while the engine ticked as it cooled. There was a limited amount of time to rectify this situation and I was horrified that I had just ruined my new job. A.J. climbed awkwardly into the cab, laying sideways as he pulled the safety bar tight to his chest so he could activate the controls. He worked the bucket arm and wheels until he somehow crawled out of that hopeless situation and back onto the street. Without turning the machine off he hopped out and gave me the address for the next job. No hard feelings, there was work to do. And with that A.J. was gone again to who knows where.
As the weeks went by darkness began to engulf more of the workable day. We found ourselves moving from landscaping into subterranean work installing a water main to an apartment complex. In Alaska all water lines must be buried 10′ below the surface to avoid the frost line, so this work is performed in the trenches. Trenching required the use of an excavator to cut the enormous channel that ran from the water main at the street to the rear of the building, about a 150′ course. A.J. dug the first 50% of the trench and turned the machine over to me for the rest of the project. I never told him that I came within inches of completely leveling the 2nd floor of that apartment building one morning while I was practicing operating the giant shovel, in the dark. To the uninitiated, excavators require the use of both feet and both hands to perform what is simply magic in the hands of experienced operators – of which I was not. While swinging a partially extended arm and an elevated bucket I damn near destroyed that building, thankfully stopping just short of contact. It was just another stark lesson to learn without having to face serious ramifications.
It was on that particular job that I started to understand my predicament in the employ of A.J. He would dispatch me to rental companies to temporarily procure large wrenches or other tools not commonly owned by thieves and con men. The more observant rental shops would inquire as to whom I worked for – and of course I believed this to be none of their business. Finally one of them refused to accept my application for rental, laying before me a trove of instances where my employer had scammed them and multiple other rental companies out of tools and machinery. Pointing past me to the truck in his parking lot that I had showed up in, he figured it was probably stolen too, along with that skid steer and trailer. “Be careful, son – that man is bad news. He’s trying to get you to rent his tools because he knows better than to come around here. Don’t get involved.” Sage advice from a well informed business owner, no doubt.
A.J. blew this off as an affront from an old nemesis – of course he was legit. But I had seen too much at this point to believe anything he said. His personal truck was a veritable den of illicit drug distribution, and I had been fortunate enough not to get caught in some rather scary places with A.J. over the past few weeks. One particular apartment we visited during normal work hours was equipped with more security cameras and guns than a sporting goods store – and enough coke and crystal meth and weed to get everyone in the confines of that shit hole multiple years behind bars. His girlfriend was a pathetic tweaker who constantly picked at her thumb with tweezers, convinced there was glass embedded in her skin. She drove a school bus for the Anchorage School District, and we would occasionally rendezvous with the bus on her route to make exchanges. Yep, she would pull that big yellow bus over to the side of the road and wait for A.J. to make a brief entrance and exit and we were on our way. This happened at least a dozen times. I kept a nervous look over my shoulder, always. The risk was apparent and my future started to feel rather fragile around A.J. It was only a matter of time before I got stopped by the cops in his truck and would have to explain why I was transporting who knows what besides the pound of weed in the console. Call it naivete, I call it sheer luck.
A.J. was eventually confined to house arrest – he was involved in some seriously shady activities that had finally caught up to him, and he needed me to run his ‘business’ – so I demanded more money and agreed to stay on. The trenching was finished and the 2″ copper water main needed to be connected to the apartment complex, so that task fell to me. If you’ve never had to manhandle a 150′ coil of 2″ copper in a 10′ deep trench in the pouring rain, it’s not an experience I would recommend. Trench work has apparently killed enough workers over time that someone had the presence of mind to report our particular condition to the authorities one morning. As I struggled to uncoil the giant coil of copper I saw a light flash, causing a brilliant reflection in the water around my feet. It happened again, prompting me to look up toward the dimly lit sky, into a camera lens and recurring flashes. A white hard hat with an officious looking logo sat atop the head of a man who probably saved my life that day. “Good morning! How about you climb out of that hole!” he shouted down to me. I started looking for my tools and anything else I’d taken down with me when he yelled a commanding, “NOW!” That prompted me to scurry up the aluminum ladder we had propped at the corner and onto the dripping, soil-caked edge of the trench. He was taller than me and older by many years. OSHA was clearly visible now on his helmet and jacket markings, as was the seal of The Department of Labor. I felt relieved to be standing before this patron saint of gullible and stupid workers. He had fished me out of a trench that could have caved in at any moment, considering A.J. never installed a proper trench box or any kind of shoring to prevent such catastrophe. He explained to me that an anonymous tip was called in to his office and he was there to shut the job down. He strung tape around what could have become a crime scene.
I stood there in the rain that morning, suddenly jobless and dumbstruck over my misfortune with recent employers. I felt somehow vindicated by being forced to stop rather than quitting, but that didn’t make up for the diminishing confidence in my obstinate career path. A.J. was an obvious con man and a drug dealer who damn near killed me. I’m sure my presence and lackluster criminal profile confused the hell out of the local police and perhaps federal agents who knew every move A.J. made, but fortunately never came to know me personally. Once that OSHA inspector taped up our soggy job site I knew where to find A.J. My better sense told me not to go to his house knowing everything I knew about him, but it was a matter of cash and closure – the former being a hell of a motivator. I told him squarely that I would report him to the Department of Labor if he didn’t pay me upfront for all back wages and for the wages he owed some poor young sap that had recently started working with me. He handed over several hundred dollars in cash and that was the last I ever saw of A.J. It didn’t keep me from looking over my shoulder from time to time since our parting interaction involved a direct threat to his criminal enterprise.
Once my stint with A.J. was up we desperately needed a 2nd vehicle to solve our constant transportation needs, to which I acquired a beautiful blue 1982 Chevy Suburban that was a former north slope work truck. The gentleman I bought that truck from happened to be originally from Minnesota, and we bonded quickly over stories of ‘home’ as he’d once considered that lowly 48 freezer. His son worked on a construction crew building houses in Anchorage and the owner of the company was a good friend – he’d give him a call for me to see if there were any openings. By a stroke of luck or perhaps on behalf of a favor there was a spot on the framing crew, I could go meet them that afternoon. Pat was the owner, a polite and friendly man originally from Ohio. He was clearly legitimate and was proud to show his company name on his truck – this guy wasn’t hiding from anyone, and I needed a solid place to land for awhile.
My carpentry skills were sharpened dramatically during my tenure with Pat’s crew. John was the crew boss and another native Ohioan, about my age but with four kids and a curious past in an agrarian cult. Jimmy was the son of the guy who helped me get the job, a nice kid, albeit a bit confused with what to do with life after high school. Dave was the oddball of the group but he was a sweet guy, harmless despite his wish you’d think of him as a bad ass. Kenny was the group clown and paid dearly for his antics with undesirable assigned duties that must go to someone. We worked through pitch dark and into pathetic daylight for months that winter, pouring concrete foundations despite the freezing temperatures (giant tents were erected over the entire foundation and kept aloft with diesel jet heaters – the ambient temperature inside was a dripping 65 degrees), framing the structures and finishing the individual condos. It was steady work that provided invaluable skills training with a crew of unique individuals who otherwise would have never known each other.
As spring approached and longer days returned I began yearning for another job beyond the city. The carpentry work was a means to my true love of fishing, and I made frequent visits to a local fly shop where I was building a fly rod. During one of the many evenings I spent toiling over the delicate rebuild of my Dad’s busted #4 Leonard I met the next link to a promising new job. He was a gregarious and fittingly large man who claimed to be the PA (Physician’s Assistant) for this particular lodge. He of course knew the owners and he’d put me in touch, what more could I ask for? I was sitting on tentative employment with a dreamy spot called Valhalla Lodge for the impending summer, but this new opportunity promised to go even further into the wilds of Alaska, to a region most visitors never consider. Unalakleet River was just southeast of Nome by 400 miles and square in the middle of Norton Sound, way to the northwest of my current locale. There weren’t any trout up there but the salmon were legendary and competition was of the four legged variety. Dolly Varden would come with the salmon so there was a great variety of action to be had with a fly rod.
Arranging for the new job was pretty easy – the owners seemed organized and had a good reputation – they were even part of the Cabela’s lodge system which was reassuring. I’d learned enough about employers in Alaska by now to be weary, so I considered my choice a solid one. With new orders on the horizon my remaining days in Anchorage were spent scouring Ship Creek in town and the many lakes in the Wasilla area, perfecting my skills to leave zero doubt in my ability to catch fish anywhere, anytime. Guiding was a new endeavor for me but it was an exciting challenge, one that would ultimately teach me more about myself and the strength of naked confidence. I was going it alone this time – no tag along from Washington and my girlfriend was staying behind in Anchorage to keep earning money – we had big plans to move hemispheres in the fall and it would take a pile of money to accomplish our goal. I had short timers syndrome so bad it didn’t matter who got in the way or cast aside, I was finally heading out for my dream job and leaving some hard lessons behind. Anchorage was an ideal resting place for my first Alaskan winter and I was fully charged to write the next chapter. When it was time to go there were reluctant goodbyes and empty promises to see everyone again soon. Bear Dog’s crate was stuffed into the rear of what the locals in Unalakleet would call the ‘sewer pipe,’ which was something like a Fairchild Metroliner. I watched them close the hatch and walked to the staircase that would take me farther than I’d ever been in my life.