Howling through the flakes, Buckwheat walks outside of Watson Lake on his last (he hopes) snow day.

Walking with Buckwheat

on the Heartbeat Trail

Story and Photos
by Jeff Brady

First of a two-part series

Upper Liard Rendezvous
I’ve been following the Heartbeat Trail all winter, probably closer than anyone. After all, that’s my best friend out there on the long and winding road.
It’s been a strange relationship these past eight months. My usual twice weekly winter lunches with Skagway’s Buckwheat Donahue have been replaced with e-mails or phone calls along the entire length of his route from Miami on up to the Yukon, so I can pass on information and photos to the website crafters at PR Services.
I saw him only once, outside Savannah, Georgia back in early November. Now, as I drive up from Skagway toward Watson Lake, Yukon on May 27, I’m about to see him again.
As I’m thinking about what I’m going to say, I hear a rev of an engine outside my truck. Mind you, I’m going about 80 mph. And there’s Jim Jewell on his motorcycle in the other lane, pointing me over like a traffic cop. We take the next pull-out and I get the question I’ve been asked probably a thousand times this winter, “Where’s Buckwheat?”
“Believe it or not, I know exactly where he is,” I say. “He called me last night from Watson Lake. He and Gary should be just this side of Watson. Start looking for him after the Highway 37 junction.”
Jim is on a Memorial Day weekend motorbike jaunt on his quiet BMW, somewhere ahead of him is Don Corwin. Jim zooms off in search of a burger at Rancheria, but that lodge is closed. He passes me a couple bends later.
Gary Hanson of Skagway joined up with Buckwheat about a week prior, so I’m looking for his truck, but I see Buckwheat’s truck first, a little north of the Cassiar Highway 37 Junction. I drive another five miles through Upper Liard village, cross the bridge, and see Gary’s truck, and then, about a mile later, Gary talking with Jim. He’s walking south on the left hand side of the road.
Jim and I are both perplexed, so it’s my turn for the question of questions.
“Where’s Buckwheat?”
Gary briefly explains the “routine,” and says Buckwheat is probably a mile or two down the road, walking on the right side.
I go another mile and there he is, a large figure on the right coming down a very long hill. From a longer distance, he could be mistaken for a moose, in shorts. But it’s my friend. I pull over on a side road and get out.
He doesn’t know my new truck, but he knows me. Once the recognition hits as I start walking toward him, the arms start windmilling, and the howl can be heard all the way back to Watson Lake, just over the ridge.
We hug and he says, “Man, it’s good to see you. Man, it is really good to see you.”
He looks good. His tanned legs look like pieces of rusted steel. The gut is still there. “I can’t seem to lose weight but I feel good,” he says.
I talk about seeing Gary and Jim, and he tells me Corwin stopped by their hotel room this morning, and then sped off to Liard Hot Springs for a soak. He’ll be back this way to hook up with us tonight.
“Hey,” he says. “Jeff, it’s really good to see you. Are you ready to walk?”
“Not yet,” I say. “I’m almost on empty. Let me run into Watson and gas up.”
He’s a bit let down.
“I’ll be right back. I’ll be gone 10-20 minutes tops.”
“Ask the guy back there if the forecast has changed?”

The Routine
At the Tag’s in Watson, I grab some snacks and quiz the attendant about the weather and the rumors that a cold front is coming.
It’s about 62 degrees F. I’m in shorts.
“Yep, snow developing tonight and all day tomorrow,” he says.
I confirm this information for Buckwheat when I catch up to him. “Yep, that’s what they told me, damn.”
I park the truck and you can see his mind trying to figure out what to do. This third truck is messing up the routine, but I start walking and we start talking.
The first thing I have to learn is the routine. It’s been this way for around 2,000 miles, ever since Haines’ Dan Henry delivered his truck to him back in northern Minnesota. Before that, there was lots of hitchhiking to his starting spot, and back to a motel or house from the ending spot.
Now, if he’s on his own, he drives the truck ahead to where he wants to be at the end of the day, usually about 18 miles, and then he hitches back to the starting spot, carefully measured on his odometer so he can tell whoever’s driving how far back to drive him. Except for a cab ride through a bad neighborhood in Florida, he hasn’t missed a “click” (kilometer) in 5,000 miles. If it takes a while hitchhiking, he can be seen walking in the wrong direction.
Streetcar driver Nicki Bunting spotted him a month ago on her trip north and thought he was disoriented. “Buckwheat, you’re going the wrong way!” she said. They had a good laugh after he told her what he was doing. “Sometimes I have to walk backwards, but I’m covering the miles.”
Having Gary’s truck changed the routine somewhat. Gary eliminates the need for any hitching. He drives Buckwheat back to the starting spot, then drives ahead five miles, and starts walking back to Buckwheat. After they meet, they walk together ahead to Gary’s truck.
We walk on looking for Gary, and there’s Jim shadowing him. Time for a photo, then Jim motors off in search of the burger he’s been craving all day. We will meet at tonight’s camping spot, a gravel pit about 1.5 miles north of the Cassiar junction.
“There aren’t as many bugs in gravel pits,” Buckwheat says. “Set up as far from the trees as you can.”
We walk with Gary around the next bend and see his truck. He stops for a moment, and flexes his feet.
“I have to do this every couple miles,” he says. “It helps.”
The left foot in particular has “gone through hell” and back. And it is borderline again. “Blisters on top of blisters,” he says, but the ulcers and infections that stopped him for a month in the Carolinas, have not come back, not yet. He has antibiotics just in case, and says he probably should take a week off, but he’s too close to the end to stop now.
Gary lowers the tailgate and Buckwheat jumps on and dangles his feet. He keeps the shoes on. “I’ll show you the feet later,” he says, as Gary hands him a sandwich and Powerade out of the cooler, and his personal favorite, an Oh Henry bar, though it’s something you wouldn’t see on a diabetic’s diet. He says he looks forward to stocking up in Whitehorse with non-sugar drinks and snacks for the river journey.
I’m ready to walk some more, but he tells me to go on ahead with Gary. “You need to get used to the routine.”
Gary and I go on about four miles and park and start walking back. After walking about 75 miles with Buckwheat, Gary says he has learned a lot more about the Heartbeat Trail and the drive that keeps our friend going.
“He’s so disciplined and set in his ways,” he says. “He just wants to get there, and I can’t believe what all he’s put into this financially.”
It has been common misconception around Skagway that Buckwheat has used Heartbeat Trail donations for the walk, Gary says. “But people don’t realize that all that money (about $42,000 in donations) has gone to the clinic fund. He has spent about $14,000 of his own money out of pocket on this, and taken out a loan to do it.”
Buckwheat had hoped for more support along the way. He had an RV donated but could not find a support driver. A tour company that was going to line up complimentary rooms at AAA hotels also dropped the ball. So he was stuck paying for all his rooms, except for the few nights he stayed with people with Skagway connections along the route.
Having the truck along since the Canadian border has helped with logistics, but gas is around $4.50 U.S. a gallon. “It has gotten expensive,” he says. “But we’ve been camping most nights.”
Friends are gathering tonight, so Buckwheat wants to eat at the Greek Restaurant at Hwy. 37 Junction. That’s its name. “We hear it’s the best food in the Watson Lake.”
The steak and potatoes in my cooler will have to wait. Buckwheat is going to finish about 8 or 9 p.m. tonight so we run by the restaurant to see how late it’s open. A sample menu said, “Free Delivery until 3 a.m.” I asked the waitress, who is very busy, how late are they open. This is not a Wendy’s drive-thru. “It’s my first night, but I think 3 a.m.,” she says.

“Go Oil” and a Friendly Donor
After two more routines, we are at the Junction. He had wanted to go till about 9 p.m., but the boys back at the gavel pit are hungry and convince him to stop at about 7:30. Jewell never got his burger, just a smokie dog in Watson.
The restaurant is packed. There’s a birthday party at one big table, and the hockey game is on. A huge crowd is cheering for Edmonton over Anaheim. Buckwheat is excited.
“Go Oil!!!!” he shouts, and the crowd responds to him.
“What? I thought they were the Oilers?”
“No. Real fans call them the Oil. I learned that when I walked through Edmonton,” Buckwheat says. “And those guys at Anadarko Petroleum (a natural gas processing plant near mile 132 on the Alaska Highway where he stayed a couple nights) converted me.”
Corwin shows up, and most of us order beers. Even Gary, who was “on the wagon” till we showed up. Buckwheat gets a soda.
“I’m saving myself for J.C. (Johnson’s Crossing),” he says. “Then I’ll have one or two.”
Most of us order the prime rib special, and Corwin goes for a Greek salad. In most Greek restaurants, that would be served first, but he is the last to get his food. The waitress is apologetic. “It’s my first night,” she says again. “By the way, what are you guys doing here?”
We tell her the whole story, and she’s mystified to say the least. Many on the road are.
“You walked here from Miami? Wait a minute, I’ll be right back.”
She returns with a $10 bill from her first night’s tips.
“I want you to have this for your clinic,” she says.
Buckwheat thanks her and passes the $10 to me, which I will deliver to Mike Catsi of the Skagway Development Corp., which manages the Heartbeat Trail fund. We ask her name.
“Ashlea,” she says and spells it.
There’s a computer over in the corner with Internet access, and I guide her to the Heartbeat Trail site. “There he is,” I say. “Your name will be on there soon.”
“That’s the way most of them come in,” Buckwheat says. “Just a few bucks here and there. I have a check from Cindy Roland’s parents to give to you too. They stopped the other day.”
The donation has energized him. And the “Oil” have won and are advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.
It’s about 10 p.m. and Buckwheat gets up. “I think I can get in a few more miles. I’ll meet you at the gravel pit.”
“You have to admire his stubborn determination,” Gary says, as Buckwheat heads out the door.
We order another round. And another. And it’s after 11.
“I’ll drive on ahead,” I say, at my three beer limit for driving.
I don’t see Buckwheat so I head into the gravel pit where the tents are already set up. He’s not there and he’s not in his truck. So I head north. About two miles later, there he is. It’s almost dark.
“It was such a beautiful night, I just wanted to keep going,” he says. “I could go a couple more hours easy, but I guess I’ll stop.”
He jumps in the truck and makes me mark my mileage so he can pick up from the exact spot tomorrow.
We head back to the pit. It has started to rain lightly, but we get a bonfire going. It’s getting cool, and after a few nips at the bottle, the boys head to the tents and camper shells.

Gary organizes Buckwheat's food for the day from the back of his truck in a gravel pit off the highway.

Snow walking in May
“That Indian was wrong!” I hear someone shout as I stir in the early morning. I’m in a sleeping bag in the back of my truck, but I can see slush sliding down the canopy windows. It’s snowing.
I learn that Corwin the day before had run into a Native fellow who, upon hearing the forecast for snow, said, “It’s not going to snow in May. That’s from an Indian.”
Maybe the First Nation forecasters in the Yukon aren’t as reliable as Tlingit Richard Dick is down here on the coast.
Anyway, it’s really snowing. Next to where the tents were are piles of slush where the snow was shaken off the rain flies.
We’re all laughing, but the two bikers are clearly anxious. They had planned to ride up the Campbell Highway today, Sunday the 28th, and loop back from Carmacks. Now they are packing up for a wet ride home to Skagway. We head over to the restaurant, have breakfast, and they are soon on their way.
Buckwheat shows up just before they leave and thanks Jim and Don for coming up. He’s still in shorts.
“This is your fault,” the Greek cook jokes, pointing at the shorts and the snow falling outside.
“This is just the fourth time it has snowed on me the whole time,” Buckwheat says later when we meet up on the walk. The snow is blowing in our face, but not sticking on the highway. He’s thankful for the blue rain jacket that Duff Ray gave him. “It has held up well.”
“It was kind of like this crossing the Blue Ridge in Virginia, then there was the big dump in Madison, Wisconsin. That stopped me for a day, 14 inches. But they had it cleared fast. I was walking the next day but snow was on the ground all the way to Winnipeg. Then there was some snow early on the Alcan, and now this.”
It’s quiet except for when vehicles approach. Most give way, especially the trucks. The see him and veer into the other lane if no one is heading in the other direction. Buckwheat gives them a wave.
I ask about the best scenery and he responds with “Madeline at Mile 101.” I’ll learn more about her on the river. Then, “About six miles from Muncho Lake, the Canadian Rockies, outstanding.”
He adds that he started seeing some wildlife on a daily basis about 100 miles north of Fort St. John.
“This is wilderness,” he says. “There’s just this little corridor going through it.”
A couple days before we connected, Floyd Matthews and Les Fairbanks of Skagway were driving up the highway and had spotted a grizzly and two cubs on the highway just after leaving Buckwheat and Gary. They got word back to them, and Buckwheat said they also passed the bears on one of their shuttles back and forth. They were still there on a second pass, but eventually left.
There also have been black bears.
“We make noise,” Gary says.
Buckwheat laughs, “He pulled out this stick and started banging on the guard rail. It scared me!”
The bears have always run off, but they carry bear spray just in case. I realized that I left mine at home, so I have an anxious couple of miles every time I walk alone to meet him. It’s a wide highway corridor, but I’m not taking any chances. Any animal within earshot must know to stay clear of a southerner singing Beatles songs.
Buckwheat has his Ipod and is singing as well when we meet up the last time. An old Kenny Rogers and the First Edition tune. “I didn’t know what condition my condition was in!” they sing. “You know, from ‘The Big Lebowski.’”
There’s also the NBA game on Sirius Satellite Radio in the truck during breaks. They’ve been following the playoffs closer than me.
It’s cold and the walking is slower today. Buckwheat says he’ll be ready to quit after about 9 miles. “I got in a lot yesterday.”
“Well, we kept you up late too,” I say.
Then he gets that lonesome look again, knowing yet another friend on the road is getting ready to take off. He stops and flexes his foot, a little longer this time.
“You know, there were times when I was in Florida and Georgia and in the Carolinas when I didn’t think I’d make it, but here I am, less than 200 miles from J.C. and the river.”

PART TWO: Paddling with Buckwheat on the Heartbeat Trail