Even though his truck has an extra long bed, at 6-foot-4, Dwayne Parton was cramped when he climbed out onto the trailhead at 8 Mile Lake near Healy. Sometimes camping in the truck is like “sleeping in a coffin,” he said.
More than 18 miles stretched out across flat country to the iconic Fairbanks city bus where Alaska State Troopers found Christopher McCandless more than two decades ago. Many see the bus at the end of the Stampede Trail as a holy grail of travel in Alaska, but for Parton, it was a stopover.
“It wasn’t even on my radar screen,” Parton said. “I was planning on coming up here and then going back to Montana and spending the winter there. But then I started reading about Christopher McCandless, and I think we had a lot of similarities. I’m not him, I don’t aspire to be him, but I think what he had to say … was really inspiring.”
Parton was interviewed in Kenai last week, and his travels are taking him across the Kenai Peninsula. He has plans to visit Homer as well as to hike on the Harding Ice Field.
Many of Parton’s adventures have been incidental. Even being in Alaska is a sort of accident, and until he secured a room in Anchorage for the winter, he was living out of his truck with his 8-year-old pit bull/Lab mix, Bobby.
“The journey of a man is continually finding something new,” Parton said. “You would never have a good story without conflict. If you want to have a good story to tell, you can’t live in comfort all your life.”
For the past year, Parton has been intermittently driving, parking and working on his laptop in coffee shops everywhere from Chevron, Nebraska to Anchorage. He makes his living as a web developer — when he’s not traversing trails alone, he builds and maintains web pages for a school and other freelance jobs.
A native of tiny Bryson City, North Carolina — population 1,422 — Parton grew up in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Mountains get in the blood, he said, and he’s been all over the world looking for them.
A little more than 19 months ago, Parton left a parking lot in Georgia and trekked the entire Appalachian Trail with just a dog for company. Known as a thru-hike, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that only one in four hikers to attempt the hike make it. A typical hike takes approximately five to seven months.
Parton finished in just under four months.
The Appalachian Trail was a test of mental endurance as much as physical, he said. Along the way, he caught Norovirus as well as Lyme disease and spent most of the hike wet from rain or dew. He said he couldn’t feel his feet for a year.
Parton’s personal philosophy is to take everything as it comes. When he caught Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness that can cause fevers, headaches, fatigue, rashes and can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system, he said he called churches and clinics in a small Pennsylvania town until he found care he could afford. With some antibiotics in him, he carried on.
On July 30, 2014, he reached Mount Katahdin in Maine, the official end of the trail. But when you reach the end of the trail, what happens?
Parton’s solution was to take off from Bryson City and head north.
“Sitting at home, having a business and making money doesn’t make me happy,” Parton said. “To experience new things makes me tick. I’m not jonesing for adventuring. I’m not out to impress people.”
One location led to another. A conversation with a woman in a coffee shop in Nebraska led to a place to stay in Bozeman, Montana. A connection in Fairbanks led him there, and a high school friend in Anchorage drew him to Southcentral Alaska.
But unlike Christopher McCandless — the subject of the book “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer and endless debate in Alaska — he doesn’t disappear. He regularly chronicles everything with photos he takes himself and posts to his blog. One of the highlights of traveling alone is meeting people along the way and the connections he makes through conversations, he said.
“I love the type of mountains they have here,” Parton said. “I felt like this a great place to start writing, and to start meeting people who live the lifestyle that I live. They’re abundant, but they’re not overabundant.”
He is in the process of writing a book about his Appalachian Trail hike. He said his goal is to keep traveling as long as he feels led to and to share those experiences with others in the future.
Parton said he doesn’t ever plan to go home unless something draws him there. After wintering in Alaska, he hopes to get down to Patagonia in Argentina, he said.
Not all the things about adventuring are glamorous. Sometimes the trails are muddy and he has to walk in waders for miles. It’s often cold and wet and he sometimes drives for hundreds of miles a day. He sleeps on a plywood bed with a three-inch topper at home.
Living a lifestyle anchored in travel is different than the sort of idealistic wanderlust that many people have. When he arrived at the bus at the end of the Stampede Trail, he said it was sad to see it riddled with bullet holes and graffiti.
Some Alaskans want the bus to disappear because they dislike the tourists or the kind of people that try to reach it, some of whom die trying to cross the Teklanika River or because of poor preparation, he said. Many people don’t realize that when they go out on idealized adventures.
“These kind of experiences are life-changing experiences — they’re the closest to torture that you’re going to get,” Parton said. “Even this trip, I get a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re living the dream.’ But I would venture to say I’m not. It’s less than ideal 80 percent of the time. But I love my life.”