Remembering Crazy Jeff, Portraits of an Alaskan Hitchhiker

It's not often that I share the "Facebook Memories" that show up in my newsfeed, but this is worth sharing. It's been 8 years since I decided to take chance by offering a ride to a stranger, which turned into a great friendship. This was written in 2014, after the world lost a very unique soul:

It was a dull, overcast day when I was was on my way to Denali National Park to photograph fall colors and give a slide show lecture to a tour group at one of the lodges near the park entrance. Driving through the endless strip malls and stoplights that make up Wasilla, the scenery matched the muted skies as the line of traffic moved slowly along. As I was passing yet another row of box stores, I noticed a gaunt, lanky fellow alongside the road thumbing for a ride. I caught just a glimpse of his face, but it was enough to see that he had a unique look and exuberant personality that I wanted to photograph.

I’ve been known to give someone a lift when they need it, but this guy looked a little shady; not to mention the large, bone-handled knife on his belt that didn’t put me at ease either. For the next few miles I debated going back to pick him up. I was on a mission to get through Wasilla and up to Denali as quickly as possible but I also saw a potential photographic opportunity that I didn’t want to ignore. I ultimately decided to turn around and offer him a ride in exchange for photos.

I parked my truck and walked over to him, camera in hand. As he stood up from his crouched stance and looked at with me an inquisitive, wild-eyed gaze I asked: “Where are you going?” “Willow” he said, which is only an hour up the road in the same direction I was headed. I replied: “Tell you what, I’ll give you a ride in exchange for letting me take some photos of you, you’ve got a great look.” At that moment, he dropped his head to the side and let out a big laugh, showing off years of poor dental hygiene that only served to compliment his piercing blue eyes, sharp cheekbones and braided goatee. He was the embodiment of Alaskan redneck, standing well over six feet tall and topped off with a hand made birch bark hat. “Sure” he said, and we introduced. His name was Jeff but I silently gave him the nickname “Crazy Jeff” as I shook his hand. I picked up my camera and watched the personality I saw gleaming from the side of the road come to life before me.

There was never a dull moment on the ride to Willow, Crazy Jeff had a lot of energy and I was keeping an eye on the Crocodile Dundee knife still riding on his belt. I brought him to his son’s place and he showed me around the sawmill equipment he had stored there; he was a logger from California who moved to Alaska in his early twenties, continued to work in the lumber industry and did his share of gold mining as well. He was hoping to get his saws and truck moved over to his cabin near Hatcher Pass to start his business up again. I took more photos of him, gave him the sandwich and banana I had packed for the road and continued northward to Denali after getting directions to his cabin.

A couple weeks later I would find my way out to Jeff’s place, the absolute quintessential Alaskan log cabin on the banks of the Little Susitna River, complete with electricity and a stellar view of the Matanuska Range but no running water. Seeing as he was not getting adequate nourishment, I brought him some basic groceries, fresh vegetables from my garden and a few jars of canned salmon. Looking around at his hand made log furniture, books, and guitars it was clear that he was a very talented individual. After that day I would routinely visit my friend, usually with some food I made up at home and a bottle of wine or a few beers. I would show him photos I’d taken; sometimes we would play guitar and one way or another we would almost always end up in some sort of philosophical discussion. A friendship was formed that day I stopped to give Jeff a ride, and to be honest I didn’t do it out of good will, I really just wanted to photograph the crazy bastard!

I hadn’t seen Crazy Jeff, or CJ as I began to call him, for almost a year. I’d been a lot of places since that last visit and I was looking forward to catching up with him and sharing my recent adventures and photographs, so I made a point to stop by his cabin on my way to Valdez yesterday. When I pulled into the drive I saw a number of people outside – four men standing around a pile of lumber and two little girls riding bicycles. Something didn’t feel right, in all the times I’d been to CJ’s cabin I never met another person other than his oldest son Tyler. I walked up to the men, who appeared to be doing some remodeling on the home, and asked if Jeff was around. One of them walked over to me with a blank expression, it was Tyler. He informed me that his dad passed away last November, the result of a brain tumor.

CJ was a man who chose to live in the corners of society and for much of his later years, in solitude. He was extremely intelligent and always up to date on current affairs, but I often wondered if he suffered in his isolation, causing his occasional mood swings. He is gone now, leaving behind children, grandchildren, and at least one person wishing he could have seen that infectious smile one last time.

Shine on you crazy diamond, you were one of a kind and a true friend. Thank you for the wisdom and character you imparted. May the four winds take you safely home.